By Ilja Richard Pavone
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised unprecedented challenges for the global health framework and its long-term consequences are not yet in full sight. The legal and institutional regime aimed at preventing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases, grounded on the International Health Regulations (IHR) was heavily criticized.
The alarm mechanism based on the declaration of Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), in particular, has been severely tested. A PHEIC is an extraordinary event that constitutes a potential public health risk through the international spread of a disease outbreak. The WHO Director-General bases his decision to “ring the bell” upon the technical advice of an Emergency Committee (EC) carrying out “an assessment of the risk to human health, of the risk of international spread, and of the risk of interference with international traffic.”
A PHEIC, then, is declared only when an event is already sufficiently acute and has started to spread internationally. It is not an early warning, but a formal alert, and in the case of COVID-19 it was issued with extreme delay only on 30 January 2020, (one month after notification of early cases by the Chinese government), after Beijing had already adopted quarantine measures around the city of Wuhan, and draconian measures to curb the spread of the disease in the country had been announced.