(newsweek) – A World Health Organization (WHO) emergency committee will convene for the second time in less than two months to decide whether the mysterious outbreak of a deadly new virus should be classed as an international public health crisis, as the bug has spread to every region of mainland China.
The committee previously convened on January 22 and decided the outbreak did not constitute a public health emergency of international concern. According to a WHO statement, the group “expressed divergent views,” but “agreed on the urgency of the situation” and to meet again in the following days.
As experts attempt to gain an understanding of the characteristics of the novel virus in order to create diagnostic tools, treatments, and vaccines, the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee will meet today for a third time to advise its Director-General on whether to declare an international public health emergency.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who discussed the outbreak with Chinese president President Xi Jinping on Monday, appeared to cautiously try to ease fears in a Twitter thread announcing the meeting.
Ghebreyesus highlighted that in most of the recent coronavirus cases in China, “just 1 percent, or 68 cases,” have been recorded in 15 other countries. Cases outside China have been reported in people who have either travelled there or have been in contact with someone who has.
Tibet confirmed its first case of the virus on Wednesday, meaning the infection has reached all regions of mainland China. Patients have also been identified in Macau, Hong Kong, and over a dozen countries including the U.S., Canada, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and Sri Lanka, as this infographic from Statista shows. Although suspected cases have been tested, the virus does not appear to have reached Africa.
The new coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, has so far killed 170 people in 7,783 cases. The deaths are concentrated in mainland China, predominately in Hubei province where workers at a wholesale food market in the city of Wuhan started to fall ill late last year. The coronavirus is thought to have initially passed from animals to humans in the market where live and dead animals were sold, and later transmitted from human-to-human.
“But some person-to-person transmission in 3 countries outside of has been recorded. This potential for further global spread is why I called the EC [Emergency Committee],” Ghebreyesus said. “I am concerned about the impact the new #coronavirus outbreak is having on the health system. It is flu season, many people are worried & many are sick.”
The head of the WHO also praised healthcare workers for their efforts, as well as “the determination of Chinese leadership & it’s people to end the new #coronavirus outbreak.”
An emergency is called when the “serious, unusual, or unexpected” spread of a disease is deemed to endanger public health on an international scale, and could require a coordinated international response, according to the WHO.
If Ghebreyesus decides coronavirus is a serious enough threat, the committee will offer temporary recommendations that China is advised to adopt to help stop the disease from spreading.
Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at U.K’s Norwich School of Medicine, University of East Anglia, told Newsweek he was worried by the rapid increase in reported cases during the past few days and evidence that the virus can spread before symptoms have developed.
“Although a proportion of new case reports will be the stats catching up with the actual number of cases as screening, diagnosis and reporting becomes more efficient,” he said.
In response to the outbreak, China has effectively put Wuhan into lockdown and put travel restrictions in place. Asked whether the state is doing enough to tackle the outbreak, Hunter said it’s difficult to know but added the state has carried out “probably the most rigorous epidemic control measures done by a country in my working life.”
“Controlling the spread of an epidemic like this one is always a balance of individuals’ rights against the potential threat from the disease,” Hunter said. “Whatever you do you will not be popular with one section of society or another.”