The World Health Organisation (WHO) has come under fire for its handling of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak that has caused the death of over 100 people in China and has been detected in 17 countries so far.

Firstly, the organisation admitted in the footnote of its situational report on Sunday (26 January) that it had “incorrectly summarised the risk for the global level to be moderate” in previous reports on 23, 24 and 25 January.

WHO corrected itself to state that the risk is “very high in China, high at the regional level and high at the global level.”

Reports quoted WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib on Monday (27 January) as saying that it was “an error in the wording.”

When asked about the correction, co-director of the Swiss School of Public Health, Antoine Flahault told APF that it was a “sizeable” mistake. He said, “It’s a mistake. It’s definitely a sizeable one… but I really think it’s a mistake that has now been corrected”.

The correction of the global risk assessment doesn’t mean, however, that the WHO has declared an international health emergency, which is a designation reserved for the worst outbreaks that would trigger a more concerted global effort.

Last week, Chief of WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus faced a barrage from the media who questioned his decision not to declare this outbreak an international health emergency. Ghebreyesus, who is currently in China to discuss ways of containing the outbreak, had said that the designation could change at any moment but is not yet a global health emergency.

He said, “This is an emergency in China but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”

“WHO’s risk assessment is that the outbreak is a very high risk in China, and a high risk regionally and globally.”

Although yesterday (29 January), CNBC reported Mr Ghebreyesus as saying that the continued increase in cases and the evidence of human-to-human transmission outside of China is “most deeply disturbing”.

He added that there was potential for a larger outbreak even though the number of cases detected outside of China is still relatively small.

WHO too cautious in its handling of current outbreak

The organisation is also coming under fire for its cautious approach to the current outbreak. This is seen in the context of criticisms in the past of the WHO’s slow or too hasty declaration of an international health emergency.

In 2009 during the H1N1 swine flu outbreak, the agency was slammed for sparking panic by announcing that the situation has escalated to the level of a pandemic. They were later also criticised when the virus was discovered to be not nearly as dangerous as it was believed to be.

Later in 2014, however, the WHO was again condemned, this time for reacting too slowly in dealing with the Ebola epidemic and even downplaying the severity of the virus. By the time the epidemic ended in 206, the virus had killed over 11,300 lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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