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WHO declares ‘public health emergency’ over coronavirus

A Chinese worker from Starbucks checked the temperature of a customer at Beijing Capital Airport on Thursday. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the China coronavirus outbreak an international public health emergency, marking an escalation in the global response to an outbreak that has sickened more than 8,100 people and killed over 170 in that country, and led to growing spread of the virus through person-to-person transmission in the United States, Germany, Japan, and Vietnam.

The designation gives the global health agency the ability to ramp up the responses of governments and organizations around the world as they try to control the outbreak.

In making the announcement in Geneva, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the decision was made to prevent the further spread of the virus to countries with weak health systems that are ‘‘ill-prepared to deal with it.’’


‘‘This decision is not a vote of no confidence in China,’’ he said, emphasizing that WHO ‘‘continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.’’

He praised China for the speed with which it identified the virus, sequenced its genome, and shared it with the world, actions he called ‘‘impressive and beyond words.’’ There have been no deaths outside China, he said.

Although the number of cases in other countries is relatively small, he said, the world must ‘‘act together to limit further spread.’’

WHO is urging countries to avoid measures that would limit trade and travel to China, he said.

The global health agency is also calling for the world community to support countries with weak health systems, accelerate the development of vaccines, combat the spread of rumors and misinformation, ramp up preparedness and health-care resources to prevent further spread, and share data, knowledge and expertise with WHO and the rest of the world.

This is the sixth outbreak that WHO has voted to assign the designation of public health emergency, defined by the group as ‘‘an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.’’


The five other cases were the 2009 swine flu epidemic that spread throughout the United States and Mexico; the 2014 polio infection that hit countries including conflict-ridden Pakistan, Cameroon, and Syria; the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa; the 2016 Zika virus, which was spread by mosquitoes throughout the Americas and Africa and was particularly dangerous for pregnant women; and the 2018 Ebola epidemic in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, which was the world’s second-largest Ebola outbreak. WHO controversially waited until 2019 to declare it a public health emergency.

Experts say a vaccine for the coronavirus is still a long way off. Schools in Beijing have closed indefinitely, and foreigners who have been evacuated from Wuhan, China, the city at the epicenter of the outbreak, are starting to arrive in their home countries or at temporary screening sites.

About 50 million people in Hubei province have been restricted to their region as authorities try to stem the spread of the virus. Japan has sent a second flight to Wuhan, and a third is planned.

More international cases of the illness appeared Thursday. Australia, Vietnam, and South Korea all announced new coronavirus infections, while India and the Philippines had their first ones.

Earlier Thursday, the United States confirmed a sixth US case of the coronavirus, marking the first time the virus has spread from person to person in the United States.


The sixth US patient is a Chicago resident who was infected after being in close contact with his wife, who had traveled to Wuhan. The Chicago woman was the second confirmed case in the United States. She is doing well, and he is in stable condition; both will remain in a hospital to keep them isolated.

The number of countries with human to human transmission of coronavirus now numbers five: The United States, Germany, Japan, Vietnam, and China, which includes the self-governing island of Taiwan.

Illinois has 21 people it is monitoring for possible infection.

The US government is arranging more flights to evacuate Americans trapped in Wuhan.

Health officials in Riverside County, Calif., ‘‘issued a quarantine order’’ Thursday for an individual who was evacuated from Wuhan to the United States this week and attempted to leave March Air Reserve Base, where American evacuees are being temporarily held for observation.

Many countries are curtailing flights to China, with American Airlines suspending several routes scheduled for February and March. American and Unite Airlines, British Airways German carrier Lufthansa, Israel’s El Al, Scandinavian Airlines, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines also suspended flights, as did some in India and Kazakhstan.

Russia is closing its entire border with China, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced Thursday. Although no cases of the disease have surfaced in Russia, the country does share a 2,615-mile border with China, one of the world’s longest international borders.

Cruise passengers are waiting to be let off a Costa Cruises ship near Rome as local authorities test a man and woman who have been quarantined on board for potential coronavirus. About 6,000 people — 5,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members — are on the Costa Smeralda in the port of Civitavecchia, Italy.