Coronavirus: WHO declares ‘unprecedented outbreak’ a global emergency as more than 9,000 infected

‘Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,’ says health chief

Vincent Wood
Friday 31 January 2020 01:13 GMT
Coronavirus: WHO declares international health emergency over 'unprecedented outbreak'

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the “unprecedented” outbreak of coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern, as officials bid to prevent infections in countries with weak healthcare systems.

Praising China’s response to the outbreak which began in the city of Wuhan, director-general Tedros Adhanom said governments must work together “in a spirit of solidarity” to control the spread of the new pathogen.

“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,” he added, having recently met with Chinese premier Xi Jinping while monitoring the nation’s response.

“Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China. Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems.”

The official designation means more money can be freed up to launch an international effort against the disease, while also offering governments leverage to take more stringent action to avoid its spread. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement the US allowed some embassy officials to leave the country, while Italy banned all flights to and from China.

More than 9,600 cases have been recorded across the world since the initial outbreak of the virus in December – including 213 deaths, all of which have taken place within China’s borders.

Elsewhere, the first international instances of person-to-person spread of the disease have been reported, with new cases in Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the US. New cases have also been announced in nations including Italy and the Philippines.

The UK is yet to confirm a case of the disease – with 161 people tested but none infected, according to the latest figures from the Department for Health and Social Care.

However, the four chief medical officers of the UK have now raised the risk level from low to moderate, adding that the government should “plan for all eventualities”.

“In light of the increasing number of cases in China and using existing and widely tested models, the four UK chief medical officers consider it prudent for our governments to escalate planning and preparation in case of a more widespread outbreak,” the officials said in a letter.

Coronavirus evacuation plane lands in California military base

They added: “As we have previously said, it is likely there will be individual cases and we are confident in the ability of the NHS and HSC in Northern Ireland to manage these in a way that protects the public and provides high-quality care.”

Roughly 120 British citizens are due to be returned to the UK from Wuhan on Friday, alongside 50 EU citizens.

They are expected to land at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, before being secured in the grounds of Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside where they will be kept in quarantine for 14 days.

In the US, Donald Trump said he believed the virus was under control despite the nation’s first person-to-person transmission of the disease bringing the total number of infected people in his country to six.

“We’re working very closely with [China] and with a lot of other people and a lot of other countries” on combating the outbreak, the president said in a speech at a car parts factory in Michigan.

“We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment,” he said.

Washington was among the first to organise evacuations for its citizens – with one of the 195 removed from Wuhan placed under quarantine last night after they attempted to flee the California air base where they are undergoing observation.

Officials said the individual had complied with the order, which requires them to stay on the base for the entire 14-day incubation period of the virus, adding that no base personnel were exposed to the evacuee in question.

Meanwhile, in Italy a cruise ship was left stranded with around 6,000 passengers on lockdown over fears one may have contracted the virus.

A 54-year-old woman from Macau was placed in an isolation unit with her husband. The ship’s passengers were all later found to be clear of the disease.

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