Geneva, Switzerland | AFP | The World Health Organization on Wednesday called a new emergency meeting on a deadly virus outbreak following cases of onward transmission outside China, warning that all governments should “take action”.
The meeting of the WHO’s Emergency Committee on Thursday will decide whether to declare an international health emergency — a designation used for the worst outbreaks that can increase global coordination.
“The whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters in Geneva.
Ryan said the declaration of an international health emergency could help streamline the measures taken, warning that 194 countries implementing unilateral measures was a “potential recipe for disaster”.
Around 6,000 people have been infected with the SARS-like virus in China and 132 have died.
Sixty-eight further cases have been identified in more than a dozen other countries, including Germany, Japan and Vietnam where cases of human-to-human transmission outside of China have been confirmed.
“Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Asked about countries evacuating their citizens from China, Tedros said the decision was up to them but “they have to prepare themselves if there is an import of cases”.
Tedros, who visited China this week and held talks with President Xi Jinping, said earlier that he was calling an emergency meeting of international experts on Thursday.
Tedros said most people who contract the virus exhibit “milder symptoms” but about one in five have severe illness, including pneumonia and respiratory failure.
The WHO’s Emergency Committee met for two days last week but stopped short of calling an international health emergency, saying that more information was needed about the virus.
The designation has only been used five times before by the Geneva-based UN health agency, including for Ebola and swine flu.
“The world is pulling together to end the outbreak, building on lessons learned from past outbreaks,” Tedros said.
“China needs the world’s solidarity and support,” he said, adding that he had held “frank talks” with Xi.
Tedros also said the WHO “deeply regrets” a mistake in three of its reports last week in which it referred to the global risk of the outbreak as “moderate” instead of “high”.
The virus bears similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which also originated in China and killed more than 770 people worldwide in 2002 and 2003.