The World Health Organization declared on Thursday that the coronavirus epidemic in China now constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, announced the decision after a meeting of its Emergency Committee, an independent panel of experts, amid mounting evidence of the virus spreading to some 18 countries.
Tedros told a news conference in Geneva that recent weeks have witnessed an unprecedented outbreak which has been met by an unprecedented response.
“Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China,” he said.
“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” he added.
The WHO panel, chaired by Didier Houssin of France, is composed of 16 independent experts.
Twice last week the experts had decided not to declare an emergency while they sought more information from China and awaited evidence of confirmed person-to-person spread of the virus in other countries.
The declaration of a global emergency triggers recommendations to all countries aimed at preventing or reducing cross-border spread of disease, while avoiding unnecessary interference with trade and travel.
It covers temporary recommendations for national health authorities worldwide, which include stepping up their monitoring, preparedness and containment measures.
Although the WHO has no legal authority to sanction countries, it could ask governments to provide scientific justification for any travel or trade restrictions that they impose in the event of an international emergency.
Tedros praised China’s prompt actions to limit the spread of the outbreak, and reiterated that the WHO is opposed to any trade or travel restrictions.
Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert and director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the WHO’s decision was “absolutely right.”
The declaration would “undoubtedly sharpen governments’ focus” he said. “But we must also step-up as an international community to make sure no one is left behind – with all interventions, including public health measures, diagnostics, treatments and vaccines available to everyone,” added.