The World Health Organization has declared an outbreak of a new coronavirus from Wuhan, China, to be a public health emergency of international concern.
WHO officials made the announcement Thursday following an emergency committee meeting of health experts on the virus.
This was the second time the WHO met to discuss the issue. After a two-day meeting on Jan. 22 and 23, the committee declined to declare an emergency.
Since then, the number of confirmed cases has exploded to over 8,000, with 170 confirmed deaths, according to data compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Most cases and all deaths so far have been in China, where the outbreak is suspected to have started around the city of Wuhan.
Cases have been reported in 21 other countries, including Canada, which has three confirmed cases of the virus.
WHO director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s efforts in detecting and containing the virus so far at a press conference Thursday, saying that the country was “setting a new standard” for outbreak response.
“We would have seen many more cases outside China by now, and probably deaths, if it were not for the government’s efforts,” he said.
However, he said, he was declaring an emergency not because of China’s actions, but because of what could happen if the virus took hold in another country with a less-developed health-care system.
“Our greatest concern is for the virus to spread to other countries with weaker health systems,” he said.
In a statement, the WHO emergency committee emphasized the need for international co-operation.
“The Committee believes that it is still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk,” it wrote.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that despite the emergency declaration, the risk to Canadians remains low.
The WHO’s action also won’t change Canada’s current approach to the virus, she said.
“We are fully in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization as they stand,” she told reporters on Thursday. Canada is contributing to the global fight to contain the virus by researching testing and assessment, as well as a possible vaccine, she said.
Canada is able to detect and respond to cases quickly, she said, and other countries need to be able to do this as well.
Polling conducted earlier this week by Ipsos found that 87 per cent of Canadians are aware of the new coronavirus, but only 30 per cent believe the illness poses a threat to Canada.
The virus causes a fever, cough and, in some cases, difficulty breathing.
It can be transmitted from person to person, although it is not clear how easily that happens. Most cases so far are in people who have been in Wuhan, family members of those infected or medical workers.
Transmission is most likely through close contact with an infected person via particles in the air from coughing or sneezing, or by someone touching an infected person or object with the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.
In order to reduce the likelihood of transmission, the WHO recommends that people frequently wash their hands, cover their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, and avoid close contact with those who are sick.
It is unclear how deadly the new virus is. Although severe cases can cause pneumonia and death, there may be many cases of milder disease going undetected. Many of those who have died had pre-existing medical conditions, were elderly or had weakened immune systems.
Declarations of a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” are relatively rare.
Only five emergencies have been declared in the past decade: the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, an Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, a polio outbreak in 2014, the Zika virus in 2016 and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Essentially, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, the WHO makes this declaration when it determines that a public health threat isn’t just limited to one country but has the potential to have an effect in other places around the world.
Emergency declarations lead to a boost of public health measures to contain the spread of the illness as well as funding for the crisis.
“Essentially, what it does is it basically facilitates communication, data-sharing and co-ordinating more of a global response,” Bogoch said.
“It might help other countries better prepare for whatever public health threat there may be — in this case, preparing for this novel coronavirus that may emerge on their doorstep.”
Although the WHO has no legal authority to sanction countries, it can ask governments to provide scientific justification for any travel or trade restrictions that they impose in the event of an international emergency.
The emergency committee recommended that the WHO continue to investigate the source of the outbreak, to prevent “hidden transmission” as well as push for the development of therapeutic drugs and vaccinations for the virus that could be used in low- and middle-income countries.
All countries should be prepared for the virus and have in place surveillance, detection, isolation and case management procedures, the committee wrote in its statement.
The WHO is not recommending limits on trade or restricting people’s movement. “There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” Tedros said.
While there have been three confirmed cases in Canada, 58 tests completed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg turned up negative for the new coronavirus, according to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. Samples from 40 other people remain under investigation.
Tam said she is concerned about how the virus has prompted misinformation and racist rhetoric targeted at those of Chinese descent. Hurtful and “irresponsible” comments have appeared on social media and other contexts, she said.
“That’s not only unacceptable but really doesn’t do anything to help stop the spread of this virus,” she said.
— with files from Reuters and Kerri Breen, Global News