The coronavirus: international health policy

The Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus first came to light

The Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus first came to light, © dpa/picture-alliance

11.02.2020 - Article

How does the international community respond when novel pathogens emerge? The outbreak of the coronavirus is also a matter for international health policy.

What is the current situation?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the outbreak is caused by the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV, which is genetically related to the SARS coronavirus. 

Since yesterday (11 March), WHO has described the outbreak of the virus as a “pandemic” due to the speed and extent of the spread of the virus, as well as concern that many countries have not reacted to the threat posed by the virus with the political responsibility needed to keep the outbreak under control. WHO calls on all countries to intensify their measures on active containment and mitigation.

Which body is in charge of health policy at the international level?

Responsible for global health: the WHO
Responsible for global health: the WHO© dpa/picture alliance

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the most important international organisation in the field of global health. As a specialised agency of the United Nations, WHO’s objective is to promote universal health among people around the world and to achieve the best possible level of health for all. Fighting disease, especially infectious diseases, plays a major role in this regard. WHO was established in 1948 and numbers 196 Member States today. The Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations in Geneva is in constant contact with WHO.

What happens at the international level when a new pathogen comes to light?

International binding regulations – the International Health Regulations – stipulate what WHO Member States must do at the international level when a new pathogen occurs. According to these regulations, each Member State has an obligation to inform WHO without delay in the event of an incident that has the potential to become a public health emergency of international concern.

In the case of the coronavirus, China took this step on 31 December 2019. WHO was alerted to a number of cases of pneumonia that were caused by a hitherto unknown virus type. At the beginning of January, the Chinese authorities confirmed that this was indeed a novel virus belonging to the coronavirus family.

How is WHO responding to outbreaks?

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO© dpa

Based on the information from the affected countries, WHO decides whether to declare a public health emergency of international concern. To this end, the Director-General of WHO, currently Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, convenes the Emergency Committee made up of experts to discuss whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

A number of criteria must be fulfilled in order to declare a health emergency of international concern. An extraordinary event must be determined that is serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected. Such an event must carry implications for public health beyond the affected state’s national border and may require immediate international action.

If the Emergency Committee concludes that this constitutes a health emergency of international concern, the WHO Director-General may declare this to be the case. The Emergency Committee also discusses possible measures to be taken by countries to contain the spread of the pathogen. Member States are obliged to comply with the regulations stipulated by the International Health Regulations and to implement the recommendations of the Director-General.

WHO has declared a public health emergency in the case of the coronavirus.

When has a public health emergency of international concern been declared in the past?

The International Health Regulations were introduced in 1969. They were updated following the SARS outbreak at the beginning of the 2000s; a new version has governed the response to international public health incidents since 2005.

There have been three cases in recent times in which a public health emergency of international concern was declared: on 8 August 2014 following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and on 1 February 2016 due to the Zika virus in South America. Ebola resulted in a further public health emergency being declared on 17 July 2019. The outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was classified as a public health emergency of international concern.

Where can I find current information provided by WHO about the coronavirus?


WHO Twitter

Federal Ministry of Health (Information in German)

Robert Koch Institut


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