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EXPERT REACTION: WHO declares novel coronavirus a Global Health Emergency

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Overnight, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). What exactly does this mean, and what difference will it make to how countries are handling the crisis? Below, Australian experts comment.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre, The University of Sydney, The Australian National University

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott is an expert in the spread and control of infectious diseases at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney

The WHO’s declaration of a public health emergency of international concern [PHEIC] represents the highest level of alert the organisation can issue. The decision on whether or not to declare a PHEIC ultimately rests with the WHO Director-General, but there are a number of factors he or she is obligated to consider under the International Health Regulations, including the risk to human health, the affected country or countries’ views, the need for international coordination, and the advice of an expert advisory committee.

These declarations help raise the political profile of the outbreak, and as a number of governments have pandemic preparedness plans that are linked to a PHEIC declaration, we can expect to see some governments enact those plans. In addition, we usually see governments more willing to deploy healthcare professionals and public health experts when a PHEIC declaration is made, and if the WHO requests financial assistance to coordinate the outbreak, governments are usually more willing to assist.

Having said this, the WHO declaration means very little for Australia as we have already enacted our national response systems to monitor and respond to cases that emerge in Australia. The Australian Government has been closely monitoring international developments for the past couple of weeks, and progressively scaled up our national response as the situation has continued to evolve. We are very well placed to deal with any cases of the new coronavirus here in Australia, and our health system remains one of the best in the world.

Last updated: 16 Apr 2020 8:57am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake is a specialist in Infectious Diseases and Associate Professor Of Medicine at The Australian National University

The declaration of a PHEIC [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] overnight is not a surprise.

In broad terms, it means that the coronavirus is a health issue that has the ability to affect many nations by spreading through international borders.

It gives the WHO more clout to coordinate a global response to the outbreak with member states, including with issues such as travel advisories.

In general, the declaration of an emergency may make member states take an outbreak more seriously.

However, the declaration of a PHEIC may not change much in practical terms with regard to the response to this coronavirus outbreak, as it seems that most member states were working in harmony with the WHO over it anyway.

From a historical perspective, the declaration is a good idea as it acknowledges the impact that the coronavirus has had globally in such a short time.

Also, the declaration of an emergency has to be considered carefully due to the political and economic implications.

For example, some member states may become so alarmed that an emergency has been declared that they may cut trade and travel to an affected region, even if public health authorities don't really think that that is necessary.

Last updated: 31 Jan 2020 11:43am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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