WHO weighs science and politics in global virus emergency decision

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) - Most of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) criteria for declaring a global emergency have been met, but it is awaiting clear evidence of a sustained spread of the new coronavirus outside China before doing so, some experts and diplomats said.

FILE PHOTO: People wearing masks travel in the subway, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The U.N. agency is seeking to balance the need to ensure China continues to share information about the virus while also giving sound scientific advice to the international community on the risks, according to several public health experts and a Western diplomat who tracks the WHO’s work.

The WHO has declared five global emergencies in the past decade, including the ongoing Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Doing so can hurt host countries because it may lead to flight cancellations and travel or trade restrictions, dragging on the economy.

In the latest case, the WHO declined to declare China’s coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern(PHEIC) twice last week, although its Emergency Committee was split “50-50” over whether to do so.

“What was lacking for them to declare an international emergency were deaths abroad and human-to-human transmission outside of China,” said the Geneva-based diplomat following the agency.

“If there was proof of human-to-human spread among the ‘imported’ cases, the panel would lean toward another finding.”

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier declined to comment beyond what he told a news briefing earlier on Tuesday.

He restated that the WHO’s criteria for a global emergency include a “serious or unusual” health situation that affects other countries and may require a coordinated international response.

In reply to a question, he added: “It is not ‘wildly spreading’ outside of China.”

While the vast majority of the 4,500 or so confirmed cases and all 106 deaths so far have been in China, cases in Germany, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan where the virus has spread person-to-person have heightened concerns.

“As information is coming in, it seems to be confirming our worst fears,” Lawrence Gostin, university professor at Georgetown Law in Washington, DC, told Reuters.

“So I do believe that the WHO is going to have to declare an emergency and is going to have to take the lead ... You can’t leave this to China.”


The WHO’s 16-member expert panel is being “kept in the loop” and could be reconvened at any time to reassess the outbreak.

“Just because of rising numbers in China now this would not automatically trigger an Emergency Committee,” Lindmeier told the briefing.

A declaration would lead to boosting public health measures, funding and resources to prevent and reduce global spread. It could include recommendations on trade and travel, although the WHO generally tries to avoid disruptive trade restrictions.

The Emergency Committee deliberations are secret and its members have been told not to speak about their debate, several WHO officials told Reuters.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing on Tuesday to discuss how to protect Chinese citizens and foreigners in areas affected by the virus and “possible” evacuation alternatives, Lindmeier said.

China has agreed that the WHO can send international experts there as soon as possible to increase understanding of the new coronavirus and guide the global response to the outbreak, the WHO said at the end of Tedros’ two-day visit.

Some experts believe the Geneva-based health agency is in a difficult position, having drawn fire in the past for acting either too quickly or too slowly.

“Essentially the WHO is between a rock and a hard place,” said Jeremy Farrar, an expert in infectious disease epidemics and director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity.

Farrar noted that the organization was criticised for having called an early emergency in 2009 for the H1N1 flu pandemic, which proved mild, and then for being too late in declaring the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014.

Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mike Collett-White