The World Health Organization declared an international health emergency with the novel coronavirus outbreak but did not recommend travel restrictions. The WHO’s stopping short of travel restrictions was disappointing, experts in infectious disease control said.
The U.N. agency held an emergency committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday and declared the “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” for the novel coronavirus.
"Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in an urgent briefing in Geneva.
If the virus begins spreading in countries with weak health systems, he was not sure what damage it could bring, he said, adding that countries should take action now to brace for such possibility.
"The main reason for this declaration is not what is happening in China but what is happening in other countries," Ghebreyesus said.
However, Ghebreyesus said the WHO did not recommend travel restrictions.
"There was no reason for measures that affect international travel and trade,” he said.
In general, limiting the movement of people and products during public health emergencies could be ineffective and may negatively affect the necessary aid and technical support, he pointed out.
Infectious disease specialists criticize China’s influence on WHO
The total number of patients infected with the new coronavirus in China stood at 9,720 as of 9 a.m. on Friday, and the death toll increased to 213. Korea confirmed the seventh patient with the infection. It found that the sixth confirmed patient had not visited Wuhan where the deadly virus originated.
With a fast spread of the novel coronavirus, the Korean public is increasingly demanding the government bar Chinese from entering the nation. As of Friday morning, nearly 600,000 Koreans have signed an online petition calling for a ban on Chinese entering Korea.
However, in line with the WHO’s stance that travel restrictions are unnecessary, Seoul is unlikely to limit Chinese people from entering Korea.
Some experts in infectious diseases said the WHO’s decision seems to have been affected by China’s growing power in global healthcare.
“We paid attention to the WHO’s declaration of global emergency to see whether the WHO will recommend travel restrictions. But it didn’t, and I think China’s power is formidable,” a professor at the infectious disease department at a university hospital said.
Eom Joong-sik, a professor at the Infectious Disease Department of Gachon University Gil Medical Center, also said he was disappointed with the WHO’s decision not restricting movements of people.
“As the novel coronavirus does not spread through goods, we don’t have to limit trade. But there is a need to limit the movement of people,” Eom said. “I’m not saying we need to block travel entirely. Instead, we need to restrict visits and travels that can be restrained or delayed.”
The WHO did not recommend travel restrictions in the five previous public health emergencies, but the latest outbreak was different, Eom noted.
“During the Ebola outbreak in Africa, human-to-human exchanges were not vibrant in the source country, but Korea’s foreign ministry recommended not traveling there. Zika virus was transmitted not by respiratory systems but by mosquito bites,” he said.
As the WHO opposed to putting travel restrictions, the Korean government will find it difficult to take its measure to limit travel, he added.
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