The death toll in China’s coronavirus outbreak has risen to 26, hours after World Health Organisation officials said it was ‘too early’ to declare the incident an international emergency.
More than 800 cases have been confirmed globally since the SARS-like virus broke out in the central province of Hubei, including one in the US and two in Japan.
The vast majority of cases have been recorded in Hubei’s capital of Wuhan over the past month, but the virus has now spread to other parts of the world during the busy Lunar New Year travel period.
The World Health Organisation said during a press conference on Thursday that an emergency could still be declared a PHEIC if the outbreak continues to spread.
It comes on the heels of the Chinese government announcing that it was locking down Wuhan, the city of 11 million people and the epicenter of the outbreak.
‘This should not be taken as a sign that we don’t think the outbreak is serious, or that we are not taking it seriously,’ said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
‘Nothing could be further from the truth.’
Dr Ghebreyesus – referred to mostly as Dr Tedros – said that he stands ready to reconvene the emergency committee yet again, after the group was unable to reach a decision on Wednesday, to call a PHEIC if necessary.
For the time being, professor Diddiet Houssin, the meeting’s Chair, said that the number of cases abroad is still fairly limited and the efforts being made in China are, for now, sufficient to keep the outbreak relatively contained.
‘It’s a bit too early,’ to declare a PHEIC, he said.
He underscored the importance of continued exit screening, but acknowledged that it’s unlikely that new cases of the virus, which the committee will continue to call 2019-nCoV for now, will not crop up in currently unaffected nations.
‘Be ready to cope with some cases,’ he advised.
‘Let’s hope that they remain sporadic, but the global community should be readyfor the potential evolution of this epidemic.’
Meanwhile, the CDC has issued its highest travel warning, but the State Department had advised Americans planning to visit China to exercise increased caution.
US health officials started screening passengers arriving from China at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York, San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport after the first case was confirmed in Washington state on Tuesday.
Screening has now been expanded to two more airports: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and Chicago O’Hare.
According to the CDC, the first patient – a man who lives in Snohomish County and is in his 30s – arrived in the US on January 15 after visiting Wuhan.
He reportedly had no symptoms of the virus upon arrival but, after reading about the outbreak online and developing symptoms, he contacted his doctor.
The man is currently quarantined in a hospital outside of Seattle.
Meanwhile, in China, officials have taken unprecedented measures in an attempt to stop the spread of this rapidly-developing outbreak.
On Thursday, authorities announced that planes, trains and buses leaving Wuhan were cancelled. Tollways on roads out of the city were also shut down.
Additionally, all public transportation within the city would be suspended, including buses, subways and ferries.
China has also closed several tourism attractions and cultural sites including Beijing’s Forbidden City, which saw 19 million visitors last year.
City authorities also cancelled Lunar New Year events in the nation’s capital as well as temple fairs ‘to strengthen prevention and support’.
The Wuhan coronavirus is believed to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife at a seafood market, with experts suggesting the virus was passed to humans from snakes or wolf cubs.
Most of the cases are in China, but patients have been confirmed in Japan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and the US.
Almost all of the 26 deaths have occurred among older males who had pre-existing conditions.
According to the Centers for Disease of Control and Prevention, signs may appear as quickly as two days or as far as 14 days after exposure.
The agency says this is based on what was seen in the incubation period for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a cousin of the new virus that originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
There is no cure for the new virus or vaccine to prevent it, and the National Institutes of Health says research to develop a vaccine is in ‘very preliminary stages.’