Coronavirus emergency: What we need to know

The World Health Organisation has declared the new coronavirus outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ as it continues to spread outside China. The declaration gave WHO the capabilities to help facilitate containment of the virus globally as the number of cases has already surpassed that of the SARS epidemic in 2003.

At least 213 people in China died from the coronavirus, mostly in Hubei, with almost 10,000 cases nationally. However, it spread to 18 other countries that prompted the WHO to declare it a global health emergency to ramp up its efforts to contain the virus.

This also triggered panic with jittery people started buying masks. The WHO did not mention of wearing a face mask as a preventative measure against the virus. Bangladesh sent a special aircraft to bring back 361 citizens ‘willing to return’ from Wuhan after 14 days of isolation. They will be quarantined again at the Hajj camp near the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport once they returned in the early morning of Saturday.

“The emergency declaration gave the WHO more authority to deal the situation,” Prof Mahmudur Rahman, who sat in several expert committees of the WHO chief, told Bangladesh Post. “When sustained community transmission in more than one continent continues, and there is risk of spreading further, then the WHO under the International Health Regulations (IHR) of 2005 can declare this emergency,” he explained.

“The IRH is the legally binding document and it guides countries what to do and what not to do,” he said. For example, he said, no country can unilaterally decide and restrict travel and trade due to the coronavirus infection. “They have to justify that to the WHO experts,” he said, adding that while declaring emergency the WHO sent guidelines to China, to other countries and to international community about their role.

“It’s a coordinated decision,” Prof Rahman said. Such declaration is not unusual. The WHO has previously declared five global public health emergencies: Swine flu in 2009 which was later declared pandemic, polio in 2014, Zika in 2016, and Ebola in 2014 and 2019.

The designation compels countries to work together as much as they can to coordinate manpower, funds and other valuable resources. The declaration also helps governments in persuading citizens in affected countries to abide by health and hygiene recommendations.

While declaring the emergency, the WHO said, it is expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country. “Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoVinfection, and to share full data with WHO.”

Countries are reminded that they are legally required to share information with WHO under the IHR. Any detection of 2019-nCoV in an animal (including information about the species, diagnostic tests, and relevant epidemiological information) should be reported to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) as an emerging disease.

Countries should place particular emphasis on reducing human infection, prevention of secondary transmission and international spread, and contributing to the international response though multi-sectoral communication and collaboration and active participation in increasing knowledge on the virus and the disease, as well as advancing research.

The Committee does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on the current information available. “Countries must inform WHO about travel measures taken, as required by the IHR. Countries are cautioned against actions that promote stigma or discrimination, in line with the principles of Article 3 of the IHR,” according to the declaration document.

The Committee asked the Director-General to provide further advice on these matters and, if necessary, to make new case-by-case recommendations, in view of this rapidly evolving situation. To the global community, the WHO said, as this is a new coronavirus, and it has been previously shown that similar coronaviruses required substantial efforts to enable regular information sharing and research.

The global community was reminded to continue to demonstrate solidarity and cooperation, in compliance with Article 44 of the IHR (2005), in supporting each other on the identification of the source of this new virus, its full potential for human-to-human transmission, preparedness for potential importation of cases, and research for developing necessary treatment.

They have been asked to provide support to low- and middle-income countries to enable their response to this event, as well as to facilitate access to diagnostics, potential vaccines and therapeutics.

“Under Article 43 of the IHR, States Parties implementing additional health measures that significantly interfere with international traffic (refusal of entry or departure of international travellers, baggage, cargo, containers, conveyances, goods, and the like, or their delay, for more than 24 hours) are obliged to send to WHO the public health rationale and justification within 48 hours of their implementation.”

WHO will review the justification and may request countries to reconsider their measures. WHO is required to share with other States Parties the information about measures and the justification received. The Emergency Committee that took the decision in its second meeting on Thursday in Geneva will be reconvened within three months or earlier, at the discretion of the WHO Director-General.