WHO Declares Coronavirus Global Public Health Emergency But Opposes China Travel Restrictions

The World Health Organization's director-general on Thursday declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) after receiving a recommendation from the WHO's emergency committee.

"These declarations will provide to WHO the possibility to question...measures by some countries," Dr. Didier Houssin, the committee's chair, said during a Thursday press conference.

More than 7,800 people have been diagnosed with 2019-nCoV, the temporary name for the virus, and 170 people have died since it was first identified in December. Originating in Wuhan, China, the virus has spread to 18 countries for a total of 82 cases, prompting WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to call for a reconvening of the emergency committee.

Comprising 16 WHO members and five advisers, the committee had two days of discussions the previous week to decide if the situation warranted a PHEIC. On January 23, it said it decided against making the advisement, citing the limited international cases and China's actions to curb the outbreak.

On Thursday, Houssin said part of the reason the committee came to a near-unanimous decision to recommend declaring the PHEIC was the increase in the number of cases and countries that were affected. The declaration will enable the WHO leadership to hold countries accountable for their responses and coordinate support for vulnerable states, according to Houssin.

Among the measures the WHO plans to question are travel restrictions, including countries closing their borders, quarantining travelers in "good condition" and visa refusals.

"WHO should inform the world about transparency concerning these measures, which should not constitute an example to follow but a decision to reconsider," Houssin said.

This is the first time this strain of coronavirus has been discovered in humans, and health officials are still learning about its characteristics, including how it spreads. For most people, the symptoms have been mild, but in others it has been deadly, the WHO said.

coronavirus PHEIC travel restrictions WHO
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a January 30 press conference following a WHO emergency committee meeting to discuss whether the coronavirus outbreak is a public health emergency of international concern. During the press conference, he declared a PHEIC and said it would allow the U.N. agency to question countries' methods in responding to the crisis. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty

Six cases have been identified in the U.S., including the first case of human-to-human transmission, which was announced Thursday shortly before the PHEIC declaration.

To prevent the disease from spreading, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has implemented health screenings at more than a dozen U.S. airports for passengers on flights from China.

In addition, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory for Hubei province (where Wuhan is located), meaning people should not travel there. A Level 3 advisory was issued for all of China, encouraging people to reconsider their travel plans, and the U.S. Department of Defense prohibited personnel from traveling within or to China except for "emergency reasons."

On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin issued a decree closing its land border with China, following in the footsteps of North Korea and Mongolia. The WHO has not reported cases in any of those three countries.

If countries believe restricting people's movement could be a useful measure, WHO's emergency committee is advising them to perform "risk and cost-benefit analyses" before implementing the policy. The committee also cautioned countries against taking actions that "promote stigma or discrimination."

Under Article 43 of the International Health Regulations, member states are required to provide information to the WHO if they implement measures that "significantly interfere with international traffic," according to the U.N. agency. This information must include the "public health rationale and justification" and be submitted within 48 hours. Once the WHO receives the rationale, it may urge the country to reconsider the measure.

Several airlines, including British Airways, United Airlines and American Airlines, have suspended flights to China, with some citing a lack of demand. Ghebreyesus told reporters on Thursday that the WHO "opposes any restrictions for travel and trade" against China but said the agency may be unable to convince airlines to change their policy if the decision was made because of limited passengers.

Some have questioned China's response to the virus' outbreak and criticized its handling of the situation during the early days of the outbreak. Ghebreyesus, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, continued to express his support for China, noting that the PHEIC is not a reflection on the nation.

"Let me be clear: This declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China," Ghebreyesus said. "On the contrary, WHO continues to have confidence in China's capacity to control the outbreak."