The Geneva-based global health agency is convening a so-called emergency committee of outside experts to advise it on the evolving situation. The group, which will be made up of roughly 12 to 15 specialists from a variety of fields, will hold its first teleconference on Tuesday, the WHO's Dr. Keiji Fukuda said Friday.
Though the committee's name sounds dire, Fukuda, WHO's assistant director general for health security and the environment, suggested the move is more precautionary at this stage.
"We have a situation. We think that it would be good to get some external experts to assess it with us and then tell us what they think," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"It's not a pandemic, and it's not zero. There's something going on. And it kills, so far, 60 per cent of the people it infects and there's sort of a steady number of infections. And it's something that has not just remained in one region, but it has been exported by airplanes."
"This is a situation which makes us uneasy, but we can't say that it's a full-blown global pandemic. But we would like to have it assessed by other people too and have that input."
The emergency committee is a tool made available to the WHO leadership under the provisions of the International Health Regulations, a global health treaty. The goal is to provide the WHO with technical expertise from outside experts.
The last time an emergency committee was struck was in 2009, in the early days of what turned out to be the H1N1 pandemic. At that time the names of the members of the committee were not made public. WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan argued it was important to shield the identities of committee members so they could be free from outside pressure.
But a report that studied the WHO's response to the H1N1 outbreak suggested the move, though well-intentioned, actually contributed to public suspicions of the way the agency handled the pandemic.
Fukuda said the WHO learned that lesson, and will release the names of the committee members on Monday. He said the WHO is inviting people with expertise in public health, infectious disease, epidemiology and laboratory science, among other specialties.
To date there have been 79 confirmed cases of MERS — Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome — and 42 of them have been fatal.
The new virus first came to the world's attention last fall. In the months after, there were a smattering of cases. But since the beginning of April, there have been 62 reported. Fukuda called it a "steady drumbeat" — and it is one that clearly has the WHO on edge.
All the cases seen to date have roots in four Middle Eastern countries — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — though cases have been exported to Tunisia, Britain, France, Italy and Germany. In all but Germany there has been limited onward spread from imported cases.
Fukuda said the source countries were given advance notice that the WHO was putting together an emergency committee, and were told they would be invited to present information to the group. None of the countries objected to the formation of the committee, he said.
One of the committee's first tasks will be to consider whether the WHO should declare MERS a public health emergency of international concern, another term set out under the International Health Regulations.
Fukuda said the thinking behind setting up the emergency committee now is to get additional help and to be prepared in case MERS begins to spread more broadly.
"We could wait until we're in a full-blown emergency. And then we would do everything on an urgent basis," he said.
This way, "if it does jump, then we have a group of people who are up to speed."
Fukuda said next week's start of Ramadan — which brings an influx of religious pilgrims to Saudi Arabia — didn't influence the timing of the move.
"Because a lot of people have been visiting already, because of the Umrah," he said, referring to a pilgrimage which Muslims can make at any time of the year. Numbers do, however, swell during Ramadan, because making the pilgrimage during the month of fasting conveys greater spiritual rewards.
Fukuda said one factor that did influence the decision, though, was the fact that there remain so many unanswered questions about MERS, including where the virus lives in nature, how people are becoming infected, how many mild or asymptomatic cases are evading detection and what conditions lead to person-to-person spread.