Latest: WHO declare international public health emergency over coronavirus

Latest: The World Health Organisation’s emergency committee has declared an international public health emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.

Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Director-General of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom said: “Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak, and which has been met by an unprecedented response.

“As I have said repeatedly since my return from Beijing, the Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak, despite the severe social and economic impact those measures are having on the Chinese people.

“We would have seen many more cases outside China by now – and probably deaths – if it were not for the government’s efforts, and the progress they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world.”

The WHO director-general added: “I also offer my profound respect and thanks to the thousands of brave health professionals and all frontline responders, who in the midst of the Spring Festival, are working 24/7 to treat the sick, save lives and bring this outbreak under control.

“There are now 98 cases in 18 countries outside China, including eight cases of human-to-human transmission in four countries: Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the US.

“So far we have not seen any deaths outside China, for which we must all be grateful. Although these numbers are still relatively small compared to the number of cases in China, we must all act together now to limit further spread.

“The vast majority of cases outside China have a travel history to Wuhan, or contact with someone with a travel history to Wuhan. We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.

“For all of these reasons, I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of coronavirus.”

Last week, WHO said it was “too early” to declare an international public health emergency.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill during the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. The number of cases has jumped to 7,711, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with Sars.

The death toll, which rose to 170 this morning, is lower than the 348 people who died in China from Sars.

Coronavirus spreads to more countries as death toll rises to 170

China’s coronavirus death toll has reached 170 as more countries report infections.

Russia is closing its 2,600-mile border with China, joining Mongolia and North Korea in barring crossings to guard against the outbreak.

It had been de facto closed because of the Lunar New Year holiday, but Russian authorities said the closure would be extended until March 1.

Train traffic between the countries was halted except for one train connecting Moscow and Beijing, but air traffic between the two countries continued. Russia has not confirmed any cases of the virus.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Funeral workers disinfect themselves after handling a virus victim in Wuhan (Chinatopix via AP)</figcaption>
Funeral workers disinfect themselves after handling a virus victim in Wuhan (Chinatopix via AP)

Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea confirmed their first cases of person-to-person spread of the virus. The man in the US is married to a 60-year-old Chicago woman who got sick from the virus after she returned from a trip to Wuhan, the Chinese city that is the epicentre of the outbreak.

There have been cases reported of the infectious virus spreading to others in a household or workplace in China and elsewhere. The case in South Korea was a 56-year-old man who had contact with a patient who was diagnosed with the new virus earlier.

Human-to-human spread of the virus outside China has also occurred in Germany, Japan, Canada and Vietnam, and was a major reason the World Health Organisation (WHO) has convened its committee of experts to assess whether the outbreak warrants being declared a global emergency. The committee last week had advised the UN health agency it was too early to make that pronouncement.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>The coronavirus outbreak has led millions of people to wear face masks in various parts of the world, such as these commuters in Taipei (Chiang Ying-Ying/AP)</figcaption>
The coronavirus outbreak has led millions of people to wear face masks in various parts of the world, such as these commuters in Taipei (Chiang Ying-Ying/AP)

The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill there during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, a cousin of the new virus.

The latest figures for mainland China show an increase of 38 deaths and 1,737 cases for a total of 7,736 confirmed cases. Of the new deaths, 37 were in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and one was in the south-western province of Sichuan. Outside China, there are 82 infections in 18 countries, according to WHO.

A second Japanese flight carrying 210 evacuees landed in Tokyo. Reports said nine of those on board the flight showed signs of having a cough and a fever. Three of Japan’s confirmed cases were among a group of evacuees who had returned on a government-chartered flight the previous day.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>The city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, remains in lockdown mode (Handout/PA)</figcaption>
The city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, remains in lockdown mode (Handout/PA)

A flight was also en route to China to bring back 350 Europeans. The US said additional flights were planned for early next week after it evacuated 195 Americans from Wuhan on Wednesday. They are being tested and monitored at a Southern California military base.

South Korea, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and other countries were also trying to get their citizens out. Taiwan, the self-governing republic China considers its own territory, has also asked to be able to repatriate its passport holders from Wuhan, but it was awaiting approval from Beijing.

Israel’s El Al, Spain’s Iberia, Scandinavian Airlines, Egypt Air and Korean Air joined the growing list of airlines suspending or reducing service to China.