The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Thursday it was declaring the China coronavirus outbreak that has killed 170 people in China a global emergency, as cases spread to 18 countries.
The United States reported its first case of person-to-person transmission. Experts say cases of person-to-person transmission – which have also been detected outside China in Germany, Vietnam, and Japan – are especially concerning because they suggest greater potential for the virus to spread further.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told a news conference in Geneva that recent weeks have witnessed an unprecedented outbreak which has been met by an unprecedented response.
“Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China,” he said. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems.”
The declaration of a global emergency triggers recommendations to all countries. It is aimed at preventing or reducing cross-border spread of disease.
Tedros said the WHO was not recommending limiting trade or travel to China due to the outbreak, however.
The vast majority of the more than 7,800 cases detected globally, according to the latest WHO data, have been in China, where the virus originated in an illegal wildlife market in the city of Wuhan.
But nearly 100 cases have emerged in other countries, spurring cuts to travel, outbreaks of anti-China sentiment in some places and a surge in demand for protective face masks.
Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the flu-like virus was confirmed in a man in Illinois, bringing the total number of U.S. cases to six. The man’s wife, who was also infected, had previously travelled to China, but he had not.
The WHO held off twice last week from declaring a global emergency. Thursday’s move will trigger tighter containment and information-sharing guidelines, but may disappoint Beijing, which had expressed confidence it can beat the “devil” virus.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said the WHO decision was “absolutely right”.
“Declaration of an international emergency will undoubtedly sharpen governments’ focus on protecting citizens,” Farrar said. The needed public health measures would be a “challenge” for all countries, but would be especially difficult for lower-income countries, he added.
The virus has spread quickly since the WHO’s Emergency Committee last met a week ago. But there has been no death reported outside China and neither has the virus emerged in Africa.
“The vast majority of cases outside China have a history of travel to Wuhan or history of contact with someone with a travel history to Wuhan,” said Teros.
The total number of infections has already surpassed the total in the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic.
SARS also came from China, killing about 800 people and costing the global economy an estimated $33 billion.
Economists fear the impact could be bigger this time as China now accounts for a larger share of the world economy. Markets have been spooked since news of the virus emerged earlier this month.
Companies have also been rattled and Alphabet Inc’s Google and Sweden’s IKEA were the latest big names to close China operations. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co Ltd extended its Lunar New Year holiday closure for some Chinese production facilities.
Airlines to suspend flights to mainland China include Air France, Lufthansa, Air Canada, American Airlines and British Airways
Thousands of factory workers currently on Lunar New Year holidays may struggle to get back to work next week due to travel restrictions.
China dominated U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s news conference on Wednesday. “When China’s economy slows down we do feel that,” he said.
Explainer: Rapid spread of China coronavirus fuels global alarm
International alarm over the coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China in December is driven by its rapid spread and the fact that infectious disease experts cannot yet know how deadly or contagious it is.
Within weeks, the virus has infected nearly 8,000 people in China and killed 170. Close to 100 cases have been confirmed in other countries, from Japan to the United States. On Thursday, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a global emergency.
Statistics from China indicate that just over 2% of people known to be infected with the virus have died, suggesting that it may be less deadly than the coronaviruses behind Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
But disease experts caution that it will take several more weeks to be confident of how the new virus behaves given how quickly it has spread and the fact that a reliable diagnostic test has only recently been introduced.
“Not everybody is being seen, not everybody is being tested,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, told Reuters. “All the experts, myself included, tell the public that there is much we don’t know about this virus and we are learning as we go along. That is not so reassuring.”
Some experts question whether the new virus shares similarities with seasonal flu, which has a low mortality rate but infects so many people that more than half a million may die from it each year, according to global health estimates.
HOW DEADLY IS IT?
The latest statistics indicate a fatality rate of about 2.2%, but the actual rate may be higher or lower as there are likely more unconfirmed cases, he said.
The SARS virus killed about 10% of all infected individuals, while the MERS outbreak identified in 2012 had a fatality rate of around 35%.
In emerging infectious disease outbreaks, the most serious cases are identified first. Coronavirus infections can range from mild cold-like symptoms to severe cases that cause pneumonia, acute respiratory illness and death.
About 20% of confirmed cases in the China coronavirus outbreak are classified as severe, similar to SARS and MERS, Schaffner said.
HOW INFECTIOUS IS IT?
The previously unknown strain is believed to have originated late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in Wuhan.
Within weeks it appeared capable of being transmitted from one person to another via droplets when an infected person breathes out, coughs or sneezes. It can also spread via contaminated surfaces such as door handles or railings.
“The rapidity of this outbreak is startling and certainly much more rapid than SARS,” said Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at Britain’s University of Nottingham.
The incubation period is estimated between one and 14 days, and there have been anecdotal accounts of “symptomless spreading” by someone who is infected but unaware of it.
Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease specialist at Imperial College London, says that is too early to know if so-called “super-spreader” events seen with MERS and SARS is happening with the new coronavirus.
HOW ARE COUNTRIES RESPONDING?
Some 60 million people are under virtual lockdown in China’s Hubei province – of which Wuhan is the capital. Australia, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and Indonesia are quarantining evacuees from China for at least two weeks. Many global airlines have suspended or scaled back direct flights to China’s major cities.
Experts say China has been more forthcoming with information than it was during its 2003 SARS outbreak, but there are still concerns about how much data they are sharing. Some also questioned the effectiveness of the quarantine attempt on millions of people.
“That kind of thing can backfire. It can make it harder to get resources in,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
The UK has increased the perceived risk
The UK has increased the perceived risk level to the country from an outbreak of coronavirus in China to moderate from low, indicating the government should plan for all eventualities.
The UK Chief Medical Officers said in a statement they had changed the risk level in light of the increasing number of cases in China, and because they consider it prudent for the government to escalate its planning in case of a more widespread outbreak.