The head of the World Health Organization said the agency would decide Thursday whether to designate the coronavirus outbreak as a global health emergency. His decision came as several nations evacuated their nationals from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the outbreak, and international airlines suspended direct flights to China.
“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 Wednesday at WHO headquarters in Geneva, a day after he visited Beijing. “Although the numbers outside China are relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”
Tedros said of the 6,065 confirmed cases of the respiratory virus, 99% are in China, while there have been 68 cases in 15 other countries. All 132 deaths have been in China.
The number of coronavirus cases now exceeds the number of SARS cases in the 2002-03 epidemic that killed 800 people worldwide.
WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee decided last week that the outbreak did not constitute a public health emergency of international concern. The committee will meet Thursday afternoon in Geneva to review the latest data and reassess its determination.
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.”
In the United States, White House officials reportedly told U.S. airline executives at a meeting Tuesday that the administration had not decided if it would impose a travel ban, but that it was continuing to assess the situation.
A U.S. chartered jet evacuated about 200 Americans from Wuhan on Wednesday on a flight to Anchorage, Alaska, where they passed a rescreening before continuing to California.
Another 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 also 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.
International flights suspended
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 beginning Friday, while the territory and Malaysia have banned entry to visitors from Wuhan. Mongolia has closed its vast border with China.
United Airlines, a major American airline, announced Tuesday that it was suspending flights to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai from February 1 through February 8.
A United Airlines pilot who will be on the last flight out of Beijing told VOA that he and other company personnel who will accompany him were taking precautions. The pilot said his food consumption in China would be limited to goods he packed in his suitcase, and that he and his colleagues would remain in their hotel rooms during their stay.
Kazakhstan, which shares a border with China, said all flights to China would be suspended Wednesday and train service would be canceled Thursday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against nonessential travel to China.
Authorities have imposed a virtual quarantine on Wuhan, banning people from traveling into and 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.
'Very good effort'
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 case confirmed 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. The UAE has now joined a list of more than a dozen countries with confirmed cases, including Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. The World Health Organization said most of those affected were people who had a travel history in Wuhan, with several others having had contact with someone who traveled 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.