WHO Declares Coronavirus a Global Emergency; First Person-to-Person Transmission in US

By Patrick Goodenough | January 30, 2020 | 5:28pm EST
Wearing protective face masks, passengers from Asia arrive at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday. (Photo by Mark Ralson/AFP via Getty Images)
Wearing protective face masks, passengers from Asia arrive at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday. (Photo by Mark Ralson/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday declared a global emergency over the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China, and U.S. health authorities reported the first confirmed case in the United States of a patient with no recent history of travel to Wuhan, the outbreak epicenter.

The previous five confirmed cases of respiratory illness caused by the virus in the U.S. – in Iowa, California, Washington, and Arizona – were all individuals who had recently been in the Chinese city where the outbreak emerged in December, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But the new, sixth case is a patient who “shared a household with” one of the earlier five.

The CDC said despite this first person-to-person transmission occurring inside the United States, the risk is believed to remain low.

“Given what we’ve seen in China and other countries with the novel coronavirus, CDC experts have expected some person-to-person spread in the U.S.,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield.  “We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, we still believe the immediate risk to the American public is low.”

The CDC is recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.

After holding off on the decision for a week, the WHO on Thursday declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).

Under international health regulations, a PHEIC is declared when “an extraordinary event” is determined to pose a public health risk through the international spread of disease; and “to potentially require a coordinated international response.”

Globally, the number of confirmed cases of the virus, known as 2019-nCoV, reached 8,236 as of the early hours of Friday morning Beijing time. Of those, 8,124 cases are in mainland China, and 112 are in other countries, mostly in East Asia but also in North America, Europe and the Middle East.

(Graph: CNSNews.com / Data: Center for Systems Science and Engineering, JHU)
(Graph: CNSNews.com / Data: Center for Systems Science and Engineering, JHU)

The recorded death toll stands at 171. All of the deaths occurred in mainland China, and 162 of them in Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is the capital.

(Graph: CNSNews.com / Data: Center for Systems Science and Engineering, JHU)
(Graph: CNSNews.com / Data: Center for Systems Science and Engineering, JHU)

(The figures given here are compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, whose data sources are the WHO, CDC, China’s National Health Commission, and the Chinese health portal DXY.)

Apart from the U.S., person-to-person transmissions outside of mainland China have also been reported in Germany, Vietnam and Japan, according to the WHO.

‘Stop travel between China and US’

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has been urging the administration to take steps including the suspension of commercial flights from China to the U.S., said the WHO decision was a welcome development, albeit “a week overdue.”

“China must open completely to WHO and international scientists,” he tweeted. “And it’s more urgent than ever to stop travel between China and U.S.”

The WHO’s stance on travel restrictions is a cautious one.

The WHO’s emergency committee said Thursday that, “in general, evidence has shown that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies may be ineffective and may divert resources from other interventions.”

Restrictions may also have a negative impact on the economies of affected countries, it said.

“However, in certain specific circumstances, measures that restrict the movement of people may prove temporarily useful, such as in settings with limited response capacities and capabilities, or where there is high intensity of transmission among vulnerable populations,” the committee said.

In those situations, authorities should evaluate costs and benefits before putting restrictions into place, and should avoid “actions that promote stigma or discrimination.”

The WHO is advising countries to focus on reducing human infection, preventing secondary transmission and international spread, and contributing to international collaborative efforts to research and combat the outbreak.

“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.”

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom at a press conference in Geneva to announce the international emergency decision. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom at a press conference in Geneva to announce the international emergency decision. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

At Thursday’s press conference in Geneva, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom – who visited China earlier this week – pushed back against criticism of Beijing’s handling of the crisis, saying that China has in fact set a new standard in outbreak response.

The PHEIC decision, he said, was not a reflection of how China was dealing with the situation, but because of what was happening outside of China, and to protect and help “countries with weaker health systems” in particular.

According to the CDC, two other serious coronavirus outbreaks this century – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China in 2002-2003 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) in 2013 – also caused some person-to-person transmission.

“With both those viruses, person-to-person spread most often occurred between close contacts, such as healthcare workers and those caring for or living with an infected person.”

The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the new virus, it said.

Risk is dependent on exposure, and anyone in contact with a 2019-nCoV patient is likely to be at greater risk of infection. CDC said such individuals should take the precautions outlined in its guidance for preventing spread in homes and communities.

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