A new coronavirus that has infected at least 82 people and killed more than half of them is not yet a “public health emergency of international concern,” a 15-member panel of experts with the World Health Organization has concluded.
The unanimous decision was reached following more than a week of urgent discussions about the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which hails from the same family as SARS and causes fever, cough and breathing difficulties.
The virus was first discovered last fall in Saudi Arabia, which has been the epicenter of the outbreak, with some 38 people dying of the illness so far. Cases have also been discovered elsewhere in the Middle East, including Qatar, Jordan and the UAE, as well as in European countries from patients who had traveled to this region.
The exact cause of MERS is still undetermined. Though it did not originally appear to spread through human to human contact, WHO later said that transmission between those in close contact with infected people was possible.
In a statement on Wednesday, WHO officials said:
“With the information now available, and using a risk-assessment approach, the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) have not at present been met.”
It added that the organization’s director general Dr. Margaret Chan has accepted the assessment. In May, Chan raised eyebrows by saying:
“The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself. The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world.”
Though it is not sounding any alarms, WHO said it considers MERS to be a “situation of serious and great concern” and urged more research on the virus, as well as improved infection prevention.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has said it plans to cut the number of visas it grants for pilgrimages to Makkah over MERS safety concerns.
Credit: Photo by NIAID