WHO postpones decision on whether to declare emergency over coronavirus

The World Health Organization has delayed its decision on whether to declare the coronavirus outbreak an international emergency as Chinese state media report Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, has shut its transport networks.

Wuhan, China shuts down outbound flights and trains

A man wears a mask while walking in the street on Wednesday in Wuhan, China. On Thursday, public transport in the city will be shut down to try to control spread of a new coronavirus. (Getty Images)

The World Health Organization says it will decide on Thursday whether to declare a global emergency over the outbreak of a new flu-like virus spreading from China.

If it does, it will be only the sixth international emergency to be declared in the last decade. These include the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo and the Zika virus in the Americas in 2016.

"The decision is one I take extremely seriously," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that he was only prepared to make it with the appropriate amount of consideration and information "in an evolving and complex situation."

He was speaking after the WHO held a day-long meeting of an independent panel of experts in Geneva on Wednesday.

WHO defines a global emergency as an "extraordinary event" that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a co-ordinated international response. 

Didier Houssin, chair of the emergency committee, was asked what gave the panel pause for making a recommendation. 

"It was the question of assessment of severity and transmissibility," Houssin said. Information provided by Chinese authorities was too imprecise to make a recommendation about declaring an emergency, he added.

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Dr. Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford University, said there were three criteria for an outbreak to be declared an international emergency:

  • The outbreak must be an extraordinary event.
  • There must be a risk of international spread.
  • A globally co-ordinated response is required.

Deaths from China's new coronavirus virus rose to 17 on Wednesday with more than 570 cases confirmed, increasing fears of contagion.

The coronavirus strain previously unknown to scientists was thought to have emerged from an animal market in the central city of Wuhan, with a case now detected as far away as the United States.

Wuhan is closing its transport networks and advising citizens not to leave the city, state media reported on Thursday.

Bus, subway, ferry and long-distance passenger transportation networks will be suspended from 10 a.m. local time on Jan. 23, and the airport and train stations will be closed to outgoing passengers, state TV said.

The official Xinhua News Agency also asked people not to leave the city without specific reasons. 

Tedros commended China's decision to close transport in Wuhan, saying it helps the country contain the outbreak not only within China but also minimizes the chance of spread elsewhere. 

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Most of the cases are in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, but dozens of infections have popped up this week around the country as millions travel for the Lunar New Year holiday, one of the world's largest annual migrations of people. 

Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.

The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said in a risk assessment that further global spread of the virus was likely.

Officials said it was too early to compare the new virus with SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), in terms of how lethal it might be. They attributed the spike in new cases to improvements in detection and monitoring.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press


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