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. A WHO expert forum aims to shed light on the source of the pathogen and ways to treat it.

What is the current situation?

According to the World Health Organization, the outbreak is being caused by the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV, which is genetically related to the SARS coronavirus. Data on the new virus is currently still limited, which is making risk assessments more difficult. The metropolis of Wuhan in China is particularly affected in the region; other countries have also reported cases. Over 41,000 cases of infections have now been recorded worldwide, over 99% of them in China.

On 30 January, WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern in order to enable countries to respond better to the pathogen and to curb the spread of the disease. At the end of last week, WHO presented a catalogue of measures aimed in particular at giving countries with less developed healthcare systems guidance on how they can protect their healthcare systems against a possible spread of the coronavirus by taking preventive action. WHO estimates that these global measures could cost around 675 million dollars. It is holding a global research and innovation forum today and tomorrow at which experts will discuss treatments, the possible source of the virus, and how it is transmitted. Possible vaccines will also be discussed at the summit.

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, the 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. The WHO was established in 1948 and numbers 196 Member States today. The Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Office of the United Nations and to the other International Organizations in Geneva is in constant contact with the World Health Organization.

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 the 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. The 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 the 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, the WHO decides whether to declare a public health emergency of international concern. To this end, the Director-General of the WHO, currently Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from 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 Director-General of the WHO 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.

The coronavirus has now been declared a public health emergency of international concern.

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 the WHO about the coronavirus?

Information provided by the WHO about the novel coronavirus (central sub-page) with regular situation reports, travel advice and guidance on protection against the virus.

The WHO also provides information about current developments via its Twitter account.

Important information about the coronavirus and the response to the outbreak is available on the website of the Federal Ministry of Health (in German):


Top of page