Merkley joins colleagues in plea to WHO over coronavirus

Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.) have urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the international coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).

Merkley and Young serve as the top Senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee that oversees multilateral institutions, including the WHO, according to a statement issued via email from Merkley’s office on Tuesday.

Declaring the outbreak a public health emergency would enable the WHO to issue trade and travel restrictions to help contain the outbreak, and could help incentivize governments to dedicate international assistance to bolster the capacity of health systems worldwide to respond to the virus, said the statement.

“We write today to express our profound concern about the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in the People’s Republic of China, on December 27, 2019,” the Senators wrote in a letter to WHO head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“We urge you in your capacity as Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) to formally declare the crisis a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) and issue legally-binding country-specific recommendations to forestall the disease’s rapid spread in China and globally.”

While the WHO initially declined to declare a PHEIC in a Jan. 22 emergency meeting, the Senators urged the WHO to reconsider and reverse this decision, especially considering the climbing death toll and the disease’s rapid international spread in the last several days, according to the press release.

Five cases have now been confirmed within the United States, and the disease has spread to 20 countries and territories.

The Senators noted that the WHO’s own definition for a PHEIC “implies an event that is serious, unusual, or unexpected, with significant risk of global spread, and may necessitate immediate action by the international community. Given the outbreak’s already alarming proliferation well-beyond Chinese borders, as well as screening procedures and other measures that countries such as the United States have already adopted in response, we question the WHO’s verdict that coronavirus fails to satisfy those criteria, and urge you to reverse the decision after the panel’s next meeting in the coming weeks.”

The Senators also noted that, following two earlier coronavirus epidemics — severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — the WHO neglected to declare public health emergencies of international concern.

While the WHO waited, the outbreaks spread, and each killed over 800 people, said the statement.

“We hope that this time, the determination will not be overdue,” the Senators concluded.