The Union’s early statement on the outbreak of novel coronavirus

The Union calls for global collaboration and solutions that are accessible to all in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

The outbreak, first reported from Wuhan, China, was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday, 30 January. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, has said that the main reason for the declaration is the concern that the virus could spread to countries with weaker health systems.

The Union welcomes this response from WHO, but the outcome will depend on whether containment efforts in China are successful.

“The outbreak of a new airborne respiratory infection is alarming, especially given the unknown factors,” said Professor Kevin Mortimer, Director of Lung Health at The Union. “These moments in time put our science, our research and our public health systems to the test. Our ability to contain the disease and swiftly develop treatments depends on public health agencies working together to coordinate across countries, languages and sectors.”

Prof Mortimer went on to say: “The importance of collaboration in research and development is critical. We need knowledge, resource sharing and pooling of information to maximise our ability to deliver effective care for everyone in need and develop new innovations, including a vaccine. It’s extremely important that we don’t stop here or allow ourselves to only value these systems during an outbreak – we need to maintain these principles of collaboration more broadly so that we can tackle other real and present threats to human health and to be one step ahead of future emergencies.”

The number of infections in China and other countries continues to climb, and the situation is evolving rapidly. Symptoms of the virus include common signs of infection, such as breathing difficulties and fever, and in severe cases can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome and kidney failure. A small number of cases, currently estimated at two percent, have been fatal.

WHO is working closely with global experts, governments and partners to expand scientific knowledge and to track the spread and virulence of the virus, and is advising countries and individuals on how to protect themselves and prevent the spread of the outbreak.

Although there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat 2019-nCoV, infected people are receiving care to relieve and treat symptoms. WHO has said that it is working with a range of partners to accelerate research and development efforts, and that some specific treatments are under investigation. The Union hopes that these research efforts will result in a treatment that will be affordable and accessible to all those who need it.

The majority of The Union’s projects, offices and staff are not directly affected by the outbreak, and at this stage there is no clear link between 2019-nCoV and tuberculosis (TB). However, as the symptoms of the new virus mirror some of the symptoms of TB, there is a risk that people with 2019-nCoV who are admitted to TB treatment or testing facilities may spread the virus to other patients. The Union has advised its project staff to be aware of this risk, and to ensure that people being screened for TB are asked about recent travel to China, or exposure to someone who has recently been to China.

Standard infection control measures like the ones employed in preventing TB transmission are important measures to adopt. WHO’s website contains detailed and comprehensive technical documents on 2019-nCoV, incorporating lessons learned from the world’s experience with the SARS and MERS viruses. WHO’s standard recommendations for the public on preventing the spread of disease, like regular hand washing, should also be followed.

The Union has established a team of experts to closely monitor the outbreak of 2019-nCoV.