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WHO: New coronavirus not yet a global emergency but may become one later

A new coronavirus spreading in China and other parts of the world is not yet a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization said after convening a special panel to evaluate the situation.

The chair of WHO's special panel, Didier Houssin, said during a Jan. 23 briefing that with "limited" cases of the virus and the containment efforts China has put in place, now was not the time to declare a public health emergency of international concern.

"Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters. He added, however, that the spread of the virus "may yet become" an international emergency and that he would reconvene the panel if necessary.

SNL ImageWHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Source: AP Photo

The virus has infected about 830 people, killing at least 25, according to China's National Health Commission, which reported updated information hours after WHO's briefing. Most of those illnesses have been in China.

WHO officials said they expect more deaths to be reported before the virus is contained.

Confirmed cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, have been reported in mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macao, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and the U.S.

China has imposed travel restrictions in Wuhan, where the virus originated, as well as in Huanggang and Ezhou. January is the peak month for travel in China because of the Lunar New Year celebration.

Rare declaration

WHO has declared a public health emergency of international concern only five times: the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, the 2014 polio outbreak, the 2014-2016 Western Africa Ebola crisis, the 2015-2016 Zika virus epidemic and the 2018-2019 Congo Ebola outbreak.

The UN health agency uses the designation when there is an "extraordinary event" that constitutes a public health risk to other nations through the international spread of disease, and when situations arise that are serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected; carry implications for public health beyond the affected country's national border; and may require immediate international action.

The designation was created after the 2002-2003 outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, coronavirus. The WHO always considers SARS a public health emergency, as well as smallpox, wild type poliomyelitis and any new subtype of human influenza, so the global health agency does not convene emergency committees to determine declarations for those infections.

WHO was first informed by officials in China on Dec. 31, 2019, that a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause had been detected in Wuhan.

The 2019-nCoV was identified as the cause by Chinese authorities on Jan. 7. Three days later, WHO published interim guidelines for nations to prepare for the virus, including how to monitor for sick people, test samples, treat patients, control infection in health centers, maintain the right supplies and communicate with the public about the novel infection.

WHO officials noted that 2019-nCoV is a nickname they are using for now, and an official name for the virus will be determined later.

Vaccine, treatments

The U.S. National Institutes of Health is working on a 2019-nCoV vaccine with Moderna Inc., Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told S&P Global Market Intelligence on Jan. 21. The NIH is funding the bulk of the development, Fauci said.

SNL ImageNIAID Director Anthony Fauci
Source: AP Photo

Moderna and Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. were awarded funding Jan. 23 to pursue their research on the 2019-nCoV from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a public-private philanthropic organization.

The group is also funding coronavirus vaccine work underway at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Fauci said he hopes to have the NIH-Moderna vaccine candidate in phase 1 human testing in about three months.

It took about 20 months for researchers to get the SARS vaccine into a phase 1 trial, Fauci noted in a Jan. 23 commentary he co-authored in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

No industry partner ever stepped up to further develop the SARS vaccine, Fauci said in an interview.

"While the trajectory of this outbreak is impossible to predict, effective response requires prompt action from the standpoint of classic public health strategies to the timely development and implementation of effective countermeasures," Fauci and his co-authors wrote in the JAMA commentary. "The emergence of yet another outbreak of human disease caused by a pathogen from a viral family formerly thought to be relatively benign underscores the perpetual challenge of emerging infectious diseases and the importance of sustained preparedness."

Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said there have been a number of compounds that have been used to treat coronavirus, but there is no recognized effective therapeutic.

While protease inhibitors and interferon therapies may help, those products also are associated with certain toxicities, Ryan told reporters Jan. 22.

The patients have mostly been receiving "good supportive care," he said.

Fauci noted that Gilead Sciences Inc.'s remdesivir, an RNA polymerase inhibitor, is being assessed for activity against 2019-nCoV.

Under control?

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, President Donald Trump said the U.S. and China were in "very good shape."

In an interview with CNBC's Squawk Box, Trump said, "We have it totally under control."

That response brought immediate criticism from a number of public health experts, including Ronald Klain, the former White House Ebola response coordinator, and Nicole Lurie, former assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who both served during the Obama administration.

By "brashly asserting" that the U.S. government has 2019-nCoV under control, Trump "failed his first test in dealing with the virus," they wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

On Jan. 23, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to Wuhan, China, after officials in that nation closed transport in and out of that city.

The CDC is screening travelers entering the U.S. from China at five airports in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

U.S. government health officials are expected to brief senators on Capitol Hill about the nation's preparedness and response to the new coronavirus at a Jan. 24 meeting hosted by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and Foreign Relations Committees.