WHO Declares Public Health Emergency Over Novel Coronavirus; Researchers Ramp Up Efforts To Develop Vaccine

In the face of an escalating crisis over the spread of a novel coronavirus in China, WHO declared an international public health emergency Thursday evening, signalling a new stage in global efforts to contain and control the escalating outbreak.

The announcement came after a week of waiting and debating, which saw the case load of the new virus (2019-nCoV), first discovered in Wuhan, escalate to 7834 victims by Thursday evening, according to numbers released at an evening press conference, including 7736 cases in China and other cases scattered across 18 more countries.  Some 170 of those infected have died and about 20 percent are seriously ill, according to other WHO reports.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Gehebreyesus (left) and Didier Houssin, (right) chair of the WHO Emergency Committee.

In announcing the move, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that China has “already done incredible things to limit the spread of the virus to other countries.” But he said that in countries with “weaker health systems” more support was needed, which a formal WHO declaration of a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC), would help unlock.

“In the past few weeks we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak and has been met by an unprecedented response,” said the WHO Director General told journalists.

Dr Tedros commended China for its “extraordinary measures” it has taken to contain the outbreak, saying, “we would have seen many more cases outside of China by now, if it were not for the government efforts, and the progress that they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world.”

“However, we don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread to a country with a weaker health system,” he cautioned. “We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.

“The main reason for this declaration is not what is happening in China, but what is happening in other countries; our greatest concern is the potential of the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, which are ill prepared to deal with it.”

The WHO Director-General spoke shortly after Finland, India and The Philippines reported their first cases as the virus continued its relentless march across borders – defiant of the draconian lockdown measures imposed by China over 50 million people in the Wuhan epicentre and the wider Hubei province.

Signs of mounting international concern were also evident in moves by countries such as Russia, which closed its eastern border with China, as announced by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, over government-controlled media. A cruise ship with 7,000 people aboard was being held off the shore of Italy after one woman from the autonomous Chinese region of Macao, came down with a suspected case, ABC News reported.  And the US Centres for Disease Control announced the first US case of human-to-human transmission in Chicago.

Despite such moves, as well as the widening array of airlines canceling flights in and out of China, Dr Tedros said that WHO was not recommending further international travel and trade restrictions as a response to the outbreak. “WHO doesn’t recommending trade and movement,” he said.

Didier Houssin, head of the Emergency Committee of expert advisors, said that the expert committee “almost unanimously” recommended that WHO declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) over the novel coronavirus under provisions of the WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) at Thursday’s meeting, the third one in a week.

Houssin said that the PHEIC was deemed justified due to the increased number of cases seen in China; the increase in the numbers of countries affected with cases; as well as the fact that “some countries have taken questionable measures against travellers.”

“Thanks to the IHR, our main international health treaty, declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern is likely to facilitate a WHO leadership role for public health measures; holding countries to account concerning additional measures they may take regarding travel, trade, quarantine or screening; research efforts; global coordination; anticipation of economic impacts, support to vulnerable states,” said Houssin.

Researchers Race to Develop Vaccine

Meanwhile, researchers were racing to develop a vaccine against the novel virus, dubbed 2019-nCoV – whose spread will soon outpace the 8,000 cases seen in the 2002-03 SARS epidemic.  While less deadly than SARS, so far, the virus had still claimed 170 victims as of Thursday evening, according to a WHO disease outbreak news.

Researchers are racing to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV; this rendering was created by the US CDC.

At the frontlines of the research effort was the new Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – an initiative founded in 2016 in Davos by the governments of Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the World Economic Forum.

CEPI had announced last week during the 2020 World Economic Forum that it was funding three different initiatives to develop vaccines against the novel coronavirus. The programmes are in partnership with the Pharma company Inovio, The University of Queensland (Australia) as well as a third partnership involving Moderna, Inc. and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases.

A joint WHO-World Bank statement thrust the CEPI efforts once more into the spotlight Thursday. The statement by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board called upon CEPI and private sector pharma to “use the vaccine research they are supporting for other coronaviruses, such a MERS-CoV, for exploring the development of vaccines against 2019-nCoV.”

Dr. Tedros said Thursday evening that WHO had “invited partners” to discuss the vaccine further and there had already been “progress” that would be discussed further.

Observers say that the novel coronavirus will be the first real-time test case for the Norwegian-based international non-profit initiative, which has recruited US $750 million to prepare vaccines that can counter the threat of new disease outbreaks and pandemics.

CEPI’s CEO Richard Hatchett told the Financial Times that he aims to begin clinical trials on a vaccine for the 2019-nCoV virus within 16 weeks. Hatchett, a former director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), served on the White House Homeland Security Council under President George W. Bush and was a member of the White House National Security Staff under President Barack Obama.

Image Credits: Twitter: @WHO, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.