Date
26 February 2020
Dr Maria D Van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonoses unit at WHO, speaks at a news conference in Geneva on Thursday following a meeting to discuss the new China coronavirus outbreak. Handout photo via Reuters
Dr Maria D Van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonoses unit at WHO, speaks at a news conference in Geneva on Thursday following a meeting to discuss the new China coronavirus outbreak. Handout photo via Reuters

WHO stops short of declaring global emergency over China virus

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday called a new coronavirus that has killed 18 people in China and infected around 650 globally “an emergency in China”, but stopped short of declaring a public health emergency of international concern, Reuters reports.

Health officials fear the transmission rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during week-long holidays for the Lunar New Year, which begins on Saturday.

Nonetheless, it is a “bit too early” to consider the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” WHO Emergency Committee panel chair Didier Houssin was quoted as saying after the body met in Geneva.

Such a designation would have required countries to step up the international response.

“Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“It has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” he said

China’s National Health Commission said there had been 17 deaths as a result of the virus in Hubei, the province at the center of the outbreak, and health authorities confirmed the first Chinese death outside Hubei.

Non-fatal cases have been found in at least seven other countries.

Scrambling to contain the outbreak, the local government in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, suspended most transport on Thursday, including outgoing flights, and people were told not to leave.

Hours later, neighboring Huanggang, a city of about 7 million people, announced similar measures.

“The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history,” said Gauden Galea, the WHO’s representative in Beijing.

The organization said, however, that it is not yet recommending any broader restrictions on travel or trade.

The previously unknown virus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in Wuhan.

It has created alarm because there are a number of unknowns surrounding it. It is too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people.

There is no vaccine for the virus, which can spread through respiratory transmission. Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and coughing.

Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said data from China suggested almost three-quarters of the cases were in people aged over 40, with some 40 percent having underlying health conditions.

“At the moment, we haven’t seen many mild cases,” he said, cautioning that it was difficult at the start of an epidemic to estimate the severity or true fatality rate.

There had been human-to-human transmission of the virus in China, limited to family groups and health workers, said Tedros.

The committee of 16 independent experts had been divided in its conclusion not to declare a global emergency, said Tedros, adding that the decision “should not be taken as a sign that the WHO does not think the situation is serious.”

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