WHO Declares Wuhan Coronavirus a Public Health Emergency

By Jay Kumar

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday confirmed the first U.S. case of person-to-person spread of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) first found in China, and not long afterward, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

“We must support countries with weaker health systems,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, in a statement.

According to the WHO, there are now 7,834 confirmed 2019-nCoV cases, including 7,736 in China, with 170 deaths reported, all in China.

“We must remember that these are people, not numbers,” Ghebreyesus said. “More important than the declaration of a public health emergency are the committee’s recommendations for preventing the spread of the 2019-nCoV virus and ensuring a measured and evidence-based response.”

The WHO is “working diligently with national and international public health partners to bring this outbreak under control as fast as possible,” he added.

Meanwhile, the CDC confirmed that 2019-nCoV has spread between two people in the U.S. The latest patient is an Illinois resident with no history of travel to Wuhan, but shared a household with a patient diagnosed with the virus on January 21.

The CDC has been working closely with state and local partners to identify close contacts of confirmed 2019-nCoV patients. Public health officials identified the Illinois resident through contact tracing; the CDC said both patients are in stable condition.

“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 US,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, in a statement.  “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.”

Officials are still unclear how the easily the virus spreads, but the CDC noted in a press release that MERS and SARS, two similar coronaviruses that have caused serious illness in people, have been known to cause person-to-person spread. In the case of both those viruses, person-to-person spread occurred most often 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 this virus. Right now, 2019-nCoV has not been found to be spreading widely in the United States, so CDC deems the immediate risk from this virus to the general public to be low. However, risk is dependent on exposure, and people who are in contact with people with 2019-nCoV are likely to be at greater risk of infection and should take the precautions outlined in CDC’s guidance for preventing spread in homes and communities.

For the general public, the CDC recommends no additional precautions beyond the simple daily precautions that everyone should always take. It is currently flu and respiratory disease season, and CDC recommends getting vaccinated, taking preventive actions to stop the spread of germs, and taking flu antivirals if prescribed. Right now, the agency recommends travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.

Check the CDC’s website for more information about the current outbreak in China.