The outbreak of a novel coronavirus
that began in China is now a global public health
emergency
, the World Health Organization said January 30, as the death toll
rose to 170.

Eight cases of human-to-human
transmission have been reported in four countries outside of China, including
the United States. Another 14 countries have also reported cases within their
borders, WHO officials said in a telephone news conference.

Declaring a public health emergency
of international concern, or PHEIC for short, gives the WHO more clout in
recommending how countries should respond to the virus threat. China, where
most of the nearly 8,000 cases have been reported, has locked down cities that are
home to at least 50 million people and is setting up special health facilities to
treat the infected in Wuhan, where the outbreak began in December (SN:1/28/20).

“We don’t know what kind of damage
this virus could do if the virus spread throughout a country with a weaker
health system” than China’s, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom
Ghebreyesus. “For all these reasons, I’m declaring a public health emergency of
international concern over the global outbreak of novel coronavirus.”

U.S. health officials on January 30 reported
the first instance of
person-to-person transmission
in the country, bringing the total
number of cases to six. An Illinois woman diagnosed with the virus after
returning from Wuhan has spread the virus to her husband, according to the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both patients are in their 60s.

“This person-to-person spread was
between two very close contacts,” said Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois
Department of Public Health in a news briefing. “The risk to the general public
in Illinois remains low.”

The WHO’s emergency declaration
marks only the 6th time the
designation has been used
(SN: 1/23/20). Previously, the WHO had
held off on declaring coronavirus a public health emergency, citing a lack of human-to-human
transmission outside of China.  

While WHO recommendations
under an emergency aren’t legally binding, experts say the declaration can
encourage greater cooperation among governments and public health
officials. For example, the WHO can now officially question drastic
actions taken by individual countries that the WHO deems ill-advised, such as
closing borders or refusing visas. The WHO still does not recommend broad
actions that interfere with international travel and trade.

A few countries
have already taken extreme actions to prevent the virus from gaining a foothold
within their borders. North Korea has prohibited all Chinese travelers from
entry, and Kyrgyzstan has closed its border with China. Dozens of airlines have
announced plans to limit or stop flights to and from mainland China. The CDC
advises U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to China.

The WHO encouraged
its member countries to support nations with weaker healthcare systems, and
urged accelerated efforts to develop vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic
tools. Ghebreyesus also called on countries to work together to combat the
spread of rumors and misinformation, and to share data about the outbreak with each
other and with the WHO.

“The only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to
work together,” Ghebreyesus said. “This is the time for facts, not fear, the
time for science, not rumors, time for solidarity, not stigma.”


Aimee Cunningham contributed to this story.