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White House: new coronavirus could become a public health emergency

Could the new coronavirus trigger a public health emergency in the United States? The White House believes the answer is yes and the Obama administration has given the virus an emergency designation to fast-track the approval process for new drugs and tests.

In a May 29 statement, the secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services said the new coronavirus has "significant potential" to become a public health emergency.

The virus, which is now being called MERS, has thus far infected 54 people and killed 30 since first emerging in April 2012. Earlier today, the World Health Organization announced that the latest victim is a 14-year-old girl from the eastern region of Saudi Arabia. She is currently in stable condition.

The White House also gave an emergency designation to H7N9 earlier this year, a deadly new bird flu that first popped up in China this March. The designation was used in 2009 as well for H1N1 and "inspired more than 15 product approvals," according to The Hill's health care blog.

The emergency use designation gives the US Food and Drug Adminstration the authority to bypass normal regulatory procedures (which can be time-consuming and cumbersome) and quickly approve new drugs and tests for American citizens.

The FDA can revoke this emergency use application at any time. The designation also does not mean that an emergency is already here, a US Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson pointed out to CIDRAP news rather, it's just the prudent thing to do in preparation for a worst-case scenario.

"The declaration was a necessary first step in the legal and regulatory process to allow FDA to issue an emergency use authorization for the use of new laboratory diagnostic test kits designed to detect the novel coronavirus," the spokesperson told CIDRAP news in an email.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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