LONDON — The World Health Organization says a viral illness in China that has sickened hundreds of people is not yet a global health emergency.
The decision came after Chinese authorities moved to lock down three cities on Thursday and canceled major events in the capital, Beijing, during the Lunar New Year holiday period to try to contain the new virus.
The United Nations health agency announced the decision after independent experts spent two days assessing information about the spread of the newly identified coronavirus.
WHO defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. Previous global emergencies have been declared for the emergence of Zika virus in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic, and polio.
A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater money and resources, but may also prompt nervous foreign governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. Deciding whether an outbreak amounts to an international crisis therefore can also be politically fraught.
In 2014, WHO resisted declaring the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa to be a global emergency because it feared the announcement would anger Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. When WHO made its last emergency declaration in July, related to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo, the Congolese health minister resisted the characterization and suggested the decision was made to raise funds “for certain humanitarian actors.”
Hundreds of people infected with the new virus have fallen ill in China, and 17 have died. The first cases appeared last month in Wuhan, an industrial and transportation hub in central China.
Other cases have been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong reported their first cases Thursday.