UN health chief urges global cooperation to tackle novel coronavirus threat

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). Photo: PAHO/WHO

28 May 2013 – The head of the United Nations health agency has sounded the alarm over novel coronavirus, and stressed the need for countries to work together to adequately address the threat posed by the rare illness.

“The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself. The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world,” said Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that includes viruses that may cause a range of illnesses in humans, from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), according to WHO. Viruses of this family also cause a number of animal diseases.

Novel coronavirus is a particular strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. “There is very limited information on transmission, severity and clinical impact with only a small number of cases reported thus far,” WHO states on its website.

In her closing remarks at the 66th World Health Assembly in Geneva yesterday, Dr. Chan said the new virus is her “greatest concern” right now.

“We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat,” she stated. “Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control.

“We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these question, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond.”

According to media reports, out of 44 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus around the world, 23 people have now died – with most infections linked to travel to the Middle East. The virus causes pneumonia and, sometimes, organ failure. Most patients have had other health problems.

Dr. Chan stressed the need to bring together the assets of the entire world in order to adequately address this new threat. “We need more information, and we need it quickly, urgently.”

She announced that joint WHO missions with Saudi Arabia and Tunisia will take place as soon as possible with the aim of gathering all the facts needed to conduct a proper risk assessment.

In addition to novel coronavirus, the World Health Assembly, which met from 20 to 27 May, also discussed a number of public health issues such as blindness, disability, mental health, neglected tropical diseases, the anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals and the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children. It adopted a number of resolutions on these issues.


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