The statement said that it was “still possible” to keep the virus from spreading, but that countries needed to put in place “strong measures” enabling them to detect the disease at an early stage and isolate and treat the patients.
The declaration on Thursday marks only the sixth time a PHEIC is declared, a rare move of which the WHO makes spare use due to its potentially negative impact on economies and global commerce.
Since the mechanism was established in 2005, PHEIC declarations were issued for the swine flu outbreak (2009), a polio resurgence (2014), the Zika virus (2016) and the Ebola outbreaks in 2014 and 2019.
In its declaration, the WHO lauded the swift response of Chinese authorities to the outbreak, who after the first few hundred deaths put the epicentre of the outbreak, the sprawling city of Wuhan, on lockdown, and then continued implementing containment measures.
“China quickly identified the virus and shared its sequence, so that other countries could diagnose it quickly and protect themselves,” the WHO said, adding that the quick reaction had been key in the “rapid development of diagnostic tools.”
The PHEIC declaration follows news that Belgians in the affected province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, will be repatriated on the night from Friday to Saturday on a voluntary basis.
Belgium’s health ministry said that Belgians returning from China would be quarantined for 14 days in a military hospital.
“If they are ill, they will be taken to the specialised Saint-Pierre hospital, where they can be treated,” the health minister said, referring to the Brussels hospital with the most adequate facilities for treating highly contagious diseases.