The World Health Organization declared Thursday that the deadly outbreak fueled by a new coronavirus from China has become a global health emergency, citing fears that the microbe will soon reach smaller, poorer countries incapable of stemming its spread.
The decision will probably make new resources available to health officials around the world who are battling a virus that has sickened more than 9,770 people on four continents and claimed at least 213 lives. It will also establish WHO’s authority to lead the international response and strengthen the organization’s hand in shaping the domestic decisions of its 194 member nations.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organization is not recommending any measures that would limit travel or international trade. Those are some of the most potent tools at his agency’s disposal, but they are not necessary at this time, he told reporters in Geneva.
Health experts who have been tracking the virus’ spread said the WHO’s declaration was more than justified.
“Declaring an emergency gives WHO the authority to make recommendations that are very influential,” said Lawrence Gostin, an expert on public health law at Georgetown University. “It signals to the world this is a global crisis and we all need to come together to address it.”
But experts also acknowledged that WHO has no way to enforce its recommendations or to constrain the actions of members. Even with the new declaration, the agency will be able to do little more than cajole and exhort the international community to cooperate, and to guide the efforts of philanthropies active in public health efforts.
Tedros took pains to reassure China that WHO’s declaration implied no criticism of the country’s actions, including the “extraordinary measures” it has taken to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, known officially as 2019-nCoV. Among other things, the government ordered an unprecedented quarantine affecting 50 million people in 17 cities.
“China is setting a new standard for outbreak response, and it’s not an exaggeration,” he said.