by Vijay Prashad
Part 5 - Public Health Emergency
After Dr. Zhong Nanshan’s announcement, and based on more epidemiological work, the WHO said on January 21 that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission, although there was still no conclusive evidence that the transmission happened consistently.
While Dr. Zhong made this statement, a WHO team was in Wuhan conducting a field visit. On January 22, the WHO team’s mission statement noted, “Data collected through detailed epidemiological investigation and through the deployment of the new test kit nationally suggests that human-to-human transmission is taking place in Wuhan. More analysis of the epidemiological data is needed to understand the full extent of human-to-human transmission.”
On January 22, the WHO director-general convened the WHO’s International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee, which makes the decision to declare a “public health emergency.”
The 15-member committee is made up of officials from the United States, France, Australia, Singapore, Canada, and Thailand. The committee was divided; it eventually declined to declare an emergency, but suggested that it should reconvene 10 days later to assess the situation.
The committee had advice to countries around the world: “It is expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country. Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoV infection, and to share full data with WHO.”
When the committee next met on January 30, earlier than the 10 days it gave itself, it decided to declare a “public health emergency of international concern.” Such an emergency is defined as an “extraordinary event” that is a risk due to “international spread of disease” and that requires “a coordinated international response.”
The WHO first made a public announcement of the virus on January 5; three weeks later, after more knowledge was gathered about the virus and after its spread matched the institutional definition of a public health emergency, the WHO made the appropriate announcement.