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The coronavirus was declared a public health emergency on 30 January 2020 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), only the sixth such emergency since 2009. The declaration followed reports on 31 December 2019 of an unknown virus causing a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, a city in eastern China. The virus was later identified as a new strain of coronavirus (Cov). The WHO named this new strain: a novel coronavirus (2019‑nCoV). In declaring the emergency, the WHO also provided advice about the virus but has since expressed concern about the spread, and impact, of disinformation surrounding the outbreak.

The initial source of 2019-nCov remains unknown. However, earlier this month the National Health Commission China provided information to the WHO that linked the outbreak to a seafood market in Wuhan. The market was closed for cleaning. However, the virus had already spread. Human-to-human transmission of 2019-nCoV has since been proven, with cases confirmed outside of China. The WHO has been tracking the spread of the disease. Data reported by 4 February 2020 showed:

  • Globally, 20,630 cases have been confirmed.
  • In China, there have been: 20,471 confirmed cases; 2,788 severe cases; and 425 deaths.
  • Outside of China, there have been 159 confirmed cases across 23 countries, with one death (in the Philippines).
  • In the UK, 416 tests for the disease have been carried out, with two confirmed positive.

After initially delaying the decision, on 30 January 2020, the WHO declared that 2019-nCoV had met the criteria for a public health emergency of international concern. Explaining the decision, the director‑general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, referred to fears for countries with weaker health systems, rather than concerns about what is happening in China. Currently, there is no approved vaccine or antiviral treatment available.

In response to the WHO’s decision, the UK’s four chief medical officers recommended the UK raise the risk level from low to moderate. The Government has also taken a range of actions aimed at preventing the spread of the disease.

Since the outbreak, various organisations and commentators have raised concerns about the spread of disinformation relating to 2019-nCoV. The WHO has labelled the issue an ‘infodemic’ and has acted to address the issue. Social media companies have also responded.


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