The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday it was “a bit too early” to declare a new coronavirus a global health emergency as China put millions of people on lockdown amid an outbreak that has killed 25 people and infected more than 800.
Health officials fear the transmission rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during week-long holidays for the Chinese New Year, which begins on Saturday.
“It is a bit too early to consider that this is a public health emergency of international concern,” WHO Emergency Committee panel chairman Didier Houssin said in Geneva.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organization's Emergency Committee of 16 independent experts had been divided in its conclusion.
“Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China. But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” said Ghebreyesus. He said China had taken measures which WHO believes are appropriate.
We hope they will be both effective and short in their duration... For the moment, the WHO does not recommend any broader restrictions on travel or trade.
Peter Piot, a professor of global health and director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the outbreak was at a critical phase.
Regardless of the decision not to declare this a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, intensified international collaboration and more resources will be crucial to stopping this outbreak in its tracks.
National authorities and the World Health Organization will need to continue to monitor developments very closely.”
Giving details on infections in China, Chinese state television said 800 cases had been confirmed. China's National Health Commission confirmed 17 dead in the central province of Hubei.
Health authorities in Hebei, just south of Beijing, said on Thursday an 80-year-old man infected with the coronavirus had died there, marking the first confirmed death outside Hubei.
The previously unknown virus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in the capital of Hubei province, Wuhan.
Most transport in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was suspended on Thursday and people were told not to leave. Hours later, neighboring Huanggang, a city of about seven million people, announced a similar lockdown.