Coronavirus is now a Global Health Emergency – should we be worried?

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  Last updated February 24, 2020 at 4:38 pm


“We are very well placed to deal with any cases of the new coronavirus here in Australia, and our health system remains one of the best in the world.”


People wearing masks in Japan. As of Feb 2, Japan had 20 reported cases of coronavirus. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Why This Matters: Fast response and containment strategies will limit the virus impact.

Overnight, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). What exactly does this mean, and what difference will it make to how countries are handling the crisis?

According to Sanjaya Senanayake from the Australian National University, in broad terms it means that the coronavirus is a health issue that has the ability to affect many nations by spreading across international borders.

“It gives the WHO more clout to coordinate a global response to the outbreak with member states, including with issues such as travel advisories,” Senanayake told the AusSMC.

“In general, the declaration of an emergency may make member states take an outbreak more seriously.”

The impacts for Australia

Other experts agreed, telling the Centre that the WHO’s declaration of a PHEIC represents the highest level of alert the organisation can issue.

Also: As the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak reaches Australia, here’s what we know

“These declarations help raise the political profile of the outbreak, as a number of governments have pandemic preparedness plans that are linked to a PHEIC declaration,” says Adam Kamradt-Scott from the University of Sydney.

So what does this mean for Australia?

According to the experts, very little, as Australia has already enacted its national response systems to monitor and respond to cases that emerge here.

“The Australian Government has been closely monitoring international developments for the past couple of weeks, and progressively scaled up our national response as the situation has continued to evolve,” says Kamradt-Scott.

‘We are very well placed to deal with any cases of the new coronavirus here in Australia, and our health system remains one of the best in the world.”

The declaration comes as the Australian government has begun evacuating Aussies stuck in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, and quarantining them on Christmas Island, an idea that was was welcomed by global biosecurity expert Raina MacIntyre from UNSW Medicine.

“If there is to be an epidemic in Australia, any delay is good. This buys time for development of drugs and vaccines,” she said. The alternative would be home quarantine, which according to MacIntyre is less reliable and harder to manage, with people scattered around the country.

Also: A SARS-like coronavirus is spreading through Asia and could make it to Australia

“People would also have to be relied on for voluntary self-quarantine in this situation, and there is a risk some may break quarantine.”

The situtation continues to evolve rapidly

But not all experts agree.

Ian Mackay from the University of Queensland expressed concern that the Christmas Island facility may not be equipped to manage severe disease. It’s not clear that the facility is appropriately staffed with the required expert medical professionals, sufficiently prepared for the infection control challenges the virus presents, he says.

“[Quarantining people] may even increase the number of cases, depending on the state of the facilities available to them, and whether they are kept apart from each other.”

For now, the situation continues to evolve rapidly, but with many in the public already fearful, Mackay says it is paramount that people receive regular and clear information on government decisions that can dramatically affect human lives.

For more expert comments, head to the AusSMC’s coronavirus resource page.

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About the Author

Lyndal Byford
Lyndal is the Director of News and Partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days turning complex science papers into tasty morsels to help news journalists cover science. Lyndal has an Honours Degree in Biotechnology from Flinders University and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication from the Australian National University. She has spent the last 20 years communicating science in a range of settings including science museums, within the pharmaceutical industry and in media relations both here and in the UK. Lyndal regularly speaks about science on ABC Radio National and 2CC in Canberra. Lyndal was also a member of Inspiring Australia’s Science and the Media Expert working group for the Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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