By Margaret Besheer
The chief of the World Health Organization says it will decide Thursday whether to declare the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.
The WHO said last week that the outbreak did not meet that threshold, but that was before the number of confirmed cases reached 6,000.
“The continued increase in cases and evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China are, of course, deeply concerning,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at WHO headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday, a day after he visited Beijing. “Although the numbers outside China are relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”
Several countries have evacuated their nationals from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the outbreak. International airlines have suspended direct flights to China.
Tedros said 99% of the 6,000-plus confirmed cases were in China. Fifteen other countries have confirmed 68 cases. As of Wednesday, 132 deaths have been reported, all in mainland China.
The number of new coronavirus cases now exceeds those of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic that killed 800 people worldwide. Tedros praised Beijing for its response.
“China’s efforts to contain the outbreak at the epicenter have been essential for preventing the further spread of the virus,” he said. “China identified the pathogen in record time and shared it immediately, which led to the rapid development of diagnostic tools.”
President Donald Trump was briefed on the outbreak by those he called the “great agencies” working with China.
“We will continue to monitor the ongoing developments. We have the best experts anywhere in the world and they are on top of it 24/7,” he tweeted late Wednesday.
The White House said it was considering further restrictions on U.S. airlines’ flights to China, in addition to the voluntary restrictions by some air carriers. It has not yet decided whether to impose a travel ban.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said none of the 195 U.S. citizens evacuated from Wuhan showed symptoms of coronavirus infection. They will remain at a U.S. military base in California at least through the end of the week.
The CDC said the risk to Americans was low. The agency was working with the WHO to get a U.S. team to China as soon as possible.
The CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier said Wednesday that the symptoms of a cold or the flu and the coronavirus were the same, but the risk factors for the coronavirus involve having visited China’s Hubei province or having close contact with those who were there.
A chartered jet flew 206 Japanese nationals from Wuhan to Tokyo’s Haneda airport. Japanese officials told reporters in Tokyo that 12 of the passengers were taken to a hospital after complaining of feeling ill. Medical personnel were on board the flight to screen the passengers before takeoff and again when the plane landed.
Japanese officials said they were sending a second chartered flight Wednesday evening to evacuate more nationals.
Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia and other nations also announced plans to evacuate their citizens this week.
The WHO criticized Australian plans to quarantine its nationals flown out of Hubei on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. But scientists in Melbourne said they had replicated the coronavirus in a lab for the first time outside China, a move that could help in making diagnoses and developing a vaccine.
British Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa said Wednesday that they were suspending all direct flights to and from mainland China.
Hong Kong is halting all high-speed rail and ferry services from the mainland starting Friday, while the territory and Malaysia have banned entry to visitors from Wuhan. Mongolia has closed its vast border with China.
Kazakhstan, which shares a border with China, said all flights to China would be suspended Wednesday and train service would be canceled Thursday.
Quarantine on Wuhan
Authorities have imposed a virtual quarantine on Wuhan, banning people from traveling into or out of the city. Several other cities in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, are facing heavy restrictions on movement. Wuhan is racing to complete two new field hospitals to treat the growing number of patients. The virus is believed to have emerged late last year at a local seafood market illegally selling wildlife.
Dr. Nathalie MacDermott, an epidemic response expert at Kings College London, applauded China’s efforts to contain the virus.
“It’s a very good effort and hopefully it will reduce the spread of the virus, but I think it’s not going to be feasible for China to quarantine every single one of its cities,” MacDermott said in an interview with VOA’s Mandarin service. “And so we as a public health authority here in the U.K., and every public health authority, need to be prepared to deal with a case if they arrive in their country and to try and identify them promptly, and isolate them and treat them promptly to try and reduce ongoing transmission in their country.”
First cases in Middle East
The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday confirmed that a family who had recently arrived from Wuhan had been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, making them the first confirmed cases in the Middle East. Other countries with confirmed cases included Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. The WHO said most of those people affected had a travel history in Wuhan, with several others having had contact with someone who was there.
The virus hit China just as it was beginning celebrations to mark the Lunar New Year, resulting in the canceling or the scaling back of festivities for tens of millions of Chinese. Officials took an extra step Sunday to extend the holiday by three extra days to try to cut down on group gatherings.