WHO: Coronavirus outbreak an international public health emergency

Israel's health minister has announced a ban on flights until at least the end of March, as the death toll from the new virus has risen to 170.

A health worker checks the temperature of a traveller as part of the coronavirus screening procedure at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana January 30, 2020.  (photo credit: REUTERS/FRANCIS KOKOROKO)
A health worker checks the temperature of a traveller as part of the coronavirus screening procedure at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana January 30, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/FRANCIS KOKOROKO)
The coronavirus epidemic constitutes an international public health emergency, World Health Organization (WHO) officials declared on Thursday. Earlier in the day, its experts called on all nations to be on alert for possible cases of coronavirus within their domain, and to have measures in place to quickly identify, isolate and treat patients carrying the virus.
Members of the WHO's Global Preparedness Monitoring Board met on Thursday as the number of confirmed cases then neared 8,000, with 170 confirmed deaths. The current official Chinese figures are 11,791 cases and 259 deaths. All of the fatalities have occurred in China, and the vast majority of cases are still confined to the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, although the virus has been reported in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, the UAE, the United States and Vietnam, according to Reuters.
The impact of the outbreak continues to be felt worldwide. A number of governments have begun evacuating their citizens from China; El Al cancelled all flights to China with the backing of Israel's health minister; a cruise ship carrying 6,000 passengers off the coast of Italy was put into lock down; and research scientists are scrambling to find a vaccine. The outbreak has also had a significant economic impact, particularly for China.
WHO experts met in Geneva on Thursday afternoon to consider whether to declare an international emergency over the novel coronavirus, which is believe to have first emerged at a food market in Wuhan where live animals were being sold illegally.
The global health organization met twice last week to decide on whether to formally declare an emergency, but members were split, saying they did not yet have enough information to decide. Although the declaration would rally a global response, it would also put China under increased scrutiny.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organization’s director-general announced the decision following a meeting of its Emergency Committee, a panel of 16 independent experts.
"Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China," he said, Reuters reported, adding: "Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems."
Ghebreyesus met with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping on Tuesday, and on Twitter, praised China's "monumental national response."
The head of health services in the Chinese city of Huanggang was sacked by government officials on Thursday night, after she was unable to answer key questions during a television interview. When asked how many people in her region were sick with the virus, Tang Zhihong responded “I don’t know, I’m unclear. I only know how many beds there are. Don’t ask me how many people are being treated.” Hours later the city's health department said Tang had been removed from her position, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, British citizens were given a confirmed go-ahead to evacuate the region, following a delay over operational details.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab confirmed on Thursday that a plane will depart Wuhan at 5 a.m. on Friday morning local time, evacuating around 200 British citizens back to the UK, where they will be held in quarantine for two weeks at a secure NHS facility.
The flight had originally been scheduled to depart on Thursday night, but Chinese authorities refused to grant permission for take-off, leaving British officials scrambling to negotiate.
Nick Gibb, the UK school standards minister, told Sky News: “There are some difficult issues that are being negotiated at very senior levels between the British government and the Chinese government. Our priority is to ensure the safety and welfare of British nationals in Wuhan and ensure they do return to the UK as soon as possible.”
The US evacuated 210 people on Tuesday, while Japan has already made two evacuation flights. Australia is negotiating with the Chinese authorities to evacuate around 600 citizens from Hubei province, and is planning on quarantining them on Christmas Island, which is more commonly used to hold illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.
Russia has closed part of its border with China.
El Al announced on Thursday that all flights between China and Israel will be halted and not resumed before the end of March. In a statement, the company said: "After assessing the situation this morning, El Al decided to suspend its flights to China until March 25. Flight 096 from China to Israel will return to Israel as planned. We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience."
The move has the support of Israel's health minister Yaakov Litzman, who announced that flights would not be permitted from China until further announcements to the contrary.
The decision follows that of America's United Airlines and American Airlines, which halted flights to and from China on Wednesday.
More than 6,000 people, including 28 Israelis, were prevented from disembarking the Costa Crociere cruise ship Costa Smeralda in the Italian port of Civitavecchia because of two suspected cases of the coronavirus, after a 54-year-old woman from Macau came down with a fever.
The woman was placed in isolation in the hospital ward of the ship overnight. Three doctors and a nurse boarded the ship to attend to her and collect samples to test for the virus. Her husband, who did not have symptoms, was also tested by doctors and quarantined.
“As soon as the suspected case emerged, medical staff onboard immediately activated the necessary health procedures for cases of this kind,” Costa Crociere said in a statement, according to The Guardian. “Our priority is to guarantee the health and safety of our guests and team.”
An unnamed passenger told the Asna news agency: “The couple’s cabin has been isolated and they are in with the doctors. We’re a bit worried of course. No one is getting on or off the ship apart from the doctors. This holiday risks ending in a nightmare.”
The couple is understood to have flown into Milan from Hong Kong on Saturday before boarding the ship, which came from Palma, Mallorca and stopped at Civitavecchia as part of a week-long Mediterranean cruise.

SWISS PHARMECEUTICALS company Roche announced it had developed the first commercially available diagnostics test for the virus on Thursday, telling the Financial Times that it is already being used in hospitals and is highly effective. Previously, hospitals had been using their own tests, but Thomas Schinecker, head of the company’s diagnostics division said that their test was the first to be produced in a large scale, and that the company was now working on getting it to China, around travel restrictions.
Efforts to halt the virus's spread are already underway, although a vaccine for the novel strain will take at least a year to be tested on humans, scientists have said. Australian researchers became the first to successfully grow the virus under laboratory conditions on Tuesday and quickly moved to share the virus with research facilities worldwide, as recommended by the WHO, Nature reported.
The team at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne said they found the virus relatively easy to cultivate. Scientists in China claimed to have grown the virus previously but had refused to share samples internationally, only offering the virus's genetic sequence. “We’ve got two parts of the puzzle together in one laboratory,” according to Julian Druce, head of the Virus Identification Laboratory at the institute.
On Thursday, researchers at the University of Hong Kong claimed to have developed a vaccine for the virus, however, the vaccine would first have to be tested on animals, with human trials not set to start for at least a year, Reuters reported. The university is one of twelve facilities in China working on a vaccine, but as vaccination is only preventative, it would do nothing to cure current cases.
The economic impact of the outbreak is also being evaluated, but a true picture has not yet emerged, experts have said.
US markets opened lower than expected on Thursday as the impact of the outbreak made itself felt. According to the Financial Times, the S&P 500 fell 0.7%, the Dow slipped 0.5% and the tech-weighted Nasdaq was down 0.7%.
Wall Street was registering less of a shift than markets elsewhere. European shares were down by around 1%, while Asia was hit by a significant drop, boosting the price of treasuries and gold.
A spokesman for the International Monetary Fund said it was monitoring developments in the financial markets "on a real time basis."
“If global supply chains were systematically affected or global financial markets were significantly impacted by increasing uncertainty, then obviously the impact would be greater,” IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said, according to AFP.
“We’re not at this point in a position to put any hard numbers around this,” he added. “That’s something that we would do in due course, but it’s just too early to do that.”