The coronavirus outbreak is now a global health emergency

WHO revises its risk assessment after death toll hits 213, desease spreads in 22 countries

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared on Thursday that the coronavirus epidemic in China now constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, as the death toll had climbed to 213 with nearly 10,000 infections in 22 countries worldwide, including in Europe.

The decision was announced by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general after the organisation's experts had already twice downplayed the threat posed by the disease,
“Our greatest concern now is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” Ghebreyesus said Thrusday.

The declaration of a global emergency now triggers recommendations to all countries aimed at preventing or reducing the cross-border spread of disease, while avoiding unnecessary interference with trade and travel. It covers temporary recommendations for national health authorities worldwide, which include stepping up their monitoring, preparedness and containment measures. Nevertheless, the organisation stressed that it "does not recommend and actually opposes any restrictions" on travel and trade to China partly because it could disrupt needed aid.

In the past week, however, countries have already sealed their borders to China, issued travel advisories, and started repatriating citizens from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus first surfaced
In Europe, with already 2 confirmed cases in Italy, the Italian government said it was suspending all flights between Italy and China, adding it was the first EU government to do so. In the meantime, earlier that week Air France suspended its three weekly flights to Wuhan on 24 January. It said Thursday it had halted regular flights to Beijing and Shanghai until 9 February, although it added it would fly special flights with volunteer crews to evacuate employees and clients. British Airways also announced it had suspended all flights to and from mainland China.

Meanwhile, at the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan, Beijing has taken extreme steps to stop the spread of the virus, including effectively quarantining more than 50 million people in the city and its surrounding Hubei province. Thousands of foreigners have been trapped in Wuhan since it was sealed off, with the Chinese government reporting Thursday 38 new deaths in the preceding 24 hours, the highest one-day total since the virus was detected late last year.

Despite the quarantine, Japan and the United States on Wednesday became the first countries to organise airlifts from Wuhan for their citizens. A second US flight was planned in the coming days. Britain also scheduled evacuation of around 200 of its citizens early Friday, after receiving the necessary clearance from Beijing. A French plane also left Wuhan on Friday, according to an AFP journalist onboard the flight. Australia and New Zealand were among others organising similar operations, with Australia taking the extraordinary measure of sending returning citizens from Wuhan to a remote island 1,200 miles off the coast of the mainland.

The flu-like coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV and first identified on 31 December, has caused global concern because of its similarity with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which took the lives of 650 people in Beijing and Hong Kong in 2003. Thus, with the number of infections and deaths spiking in recent days, determining the source of the virus and its evolutionary history is key to containing its spread. The origins of the novel coronavirus are however still unknown.

Two weeks ago Chinese scientists suggested that it might have made its first jump to a human from a snake. If the snake claim is substantiated – although other researchers in China have challenged it – it would change the scientific world’s understanding of the transmission and mutation of SARS-like pathogens, as it would be the first time a reptile had been found to be the reservoir.

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