A World Health Organization emergency committee will meet Thursday to decide whether the monkeypox outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), a major test for the agency after it was widely criticized for how it handled the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A PHEIC is the WHO’s highest alert level under international law and is declared by the Director-General on the advice of an expert committee.
The purpose is to raise public awareness and sound the alarm for governments to take steps to contain an outbreak, as well as provide guidance on what measures they should take to do so.
In deciding whether the monkeypox outbreak merits a PHEIC designation, the group will assess it against three criteria: if it is serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected, if it has potential for international spread and if it requires a coordinated global response.
Experts tell Forbes they believe the monkeypox outbreak very likely satisfies all three criteria—something echoed by other experts online—though they note it is not a foregone conclusion that WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will declare a PHEIC.
There is an element of subjectivity to the decision, Clare Wenham, an associate professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Forbes, noting past decisions where other factors have played a role.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The committee’s recommendation and the WHO’s response. The meeting is held behind closed doors and the decision is set to be communicated “in the days following the meeting.” If it declares monkeypox a PHEIC, the committee will also make recommendations on what guidance the WHO can issue to countries to help contain the outbreak.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What will happen if the monkeypox outbreak is declared a PHEIC. Under international law, nations are expected to take steps to address a PHEIC, though they are not compelled to act. There is scarce empirical evidence on what happens if a PHEIC is declared or if one is not declared, Wenham said, and also no guarantee countries will heed the agency’s warning. When the WHO sounded the alarm over the spread of a novel coronavirus—the virus that causes Covid-19—in January 2020, there was a delay of nearly two months until countries began to take substantive action against the pandemic. A monkeypox PHEIC would mark a “test” for the WHO’s authority after Covid, said Wenham. “If they do declare a PHEIC, it will be interesting to see if countries pay attention,” she added.
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