According to the latest data from the World Health Organization a new form of coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China has spread to Japan, Thailand, South Korea and most recently, the United States. Some 314 people have been sickened with the pneumonia like virus. Six people have been killed.
Coronavirus outbreaks are necessarily a worrisome thing. The virus may be relatively difficult to spread, but if a person is infected, it can be unusually lethal. The most recent major coronavirus outbreak is known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. It originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012 possibly through human contact with an infected camel. It then spread human to human, with cases reported in 27 countries, though 80% of all cases were in Saudi Arabia. Of nearly 2500 people infected, over 850 have died–meaning that MERS has killed about 35% of people who have become ill.
Like MERS, this new coronavirus originating in China can be tracked and contained. In fact, the world has gotten quite good at identifying and isolating infectious diseases like this — but doing so often requires close collaboration between governments through the World Health Organization.
In the coming days and weeks, the World Health Organization will become the focal point for global efforts to contain the spread and international impact of the coronavirus.
WHO teams are already on the ground in China, and preliminary emergency mechanisms have been set into motion. Indeed, it is through government-to-government cooperation at the WHO that is virus is being tracked and reliable information about the virus is being disseminated worldwide. This is being done through procedures that the WHO established though a global agreement of nearly every country on earth that facilitate cross border cooperation in times of a fast spreading infectious disease. That agreement is called the International Health Regulations, which was established as a legally binding global agreement in 2005 following the global SARS outbreak in 2003. (SARS originated in China, but killed people in several countries. After action reports found the response to the disease it was undermined by poor international cooperation. So,the world agreed to the International Health Regulations as a way to improve the world’s ability to quickly confront fast spreading global health emergencies.)
A key element of the International Health Regulations includes the invocation of something called a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” or PHEIC. When a PHEIC is declared certain provisions of the International Health Regulations can come into force. This includes allowing for expedited travel for international health workers and public health experts to affected regions, provisions for the rapid sharing of information, and in some cases the release of emergency funds. It is ultimately up to the director general of the WHO to issue the emergency declaration, but the director general only does so after a panel of outside independent experts offers their advice.
On Wednesday, this panel met for the first time and declined to recommend a PHEIC declaration, saying that they needed more time and more information. This panel is meeting again in Thursday, and is widely expected to issue their recommendation one way or another. It should be noted though, that the bar for issuing a PHEIC is very high. Since 2007, the WHO has only declared a PHEIC six times, including the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic; 2014 setbacks in polio global eradication efforts; 2014 west Africa Ebola epidemic; 2016 Zika virus outbreak; and the ongoing ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Whether or not a PHEIC is declared, the World Health Organization and the International Health Regulations will guide the global response. Because these agreements are already place, and because the WHO is an operational arm of the United Nations system, governments around the world will not have to waste time or effort figuring out how to cooperate with each other to stop an infectious disease from spreading globally. Those transaction costs have already been paid, allowing governments to mount a response much more quickly.
This is the value of multi-lateral cooperation and the UN system in a situation like the one we are seeing unfold with this new coronavirus.