- The Washington Times
Thursday, January 30, 2020

The World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a global health emergency Thursday, as the U.S. confirmed its first person-to-person transmission of the illness and other countries intensified efforts to contain the deadly disease.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the coronavirus, which has sickened nearly 9,700 people worldwide and killed at least 213 in China, has led to an “unprecedented outbreak” that has reached 19 countries, including Japan, Australia, France and Germany.

“We must all act together now to limit further spread,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said in Geneva. “We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system.”

WHO’s declaration of a global emergency directs more money and resources to deal with the virus and places more disease-reporting requirements on countries. It also could prompt governments to impose travel restrictions to affected areas.

The declaration followed an announcement by American health officials of the first person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus in Illinois, which increased the number of confirmed U.S. cases to six.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the newly infected man is married to the Chicago woman first diagnosed with the coronavirus in Illinois. The woman, who is in her 60s, had traveled to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

Both patients are in stable condition and seeking isolated treatment in an unnamed hospital, said Illinois state health officials.

Arizona, Washington state and California also have reported confirmed cases.

“Given what we’ve seen in China and other countries with this novel coronavirus, CDC experts have expected to identify some person-to-person spread in the United States,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. “We understand this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, our assessment remains the immediate risk to the American public is low.”

Dr. Redfield said there have been instances of person-to-person transmission among close contacts outside of China.

Several countries including South Korea, Germany, Vietnam, Canada and Japan have reported occurrences of human-to-human transmission.

WHO’s latest statistics show at least 7,736 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in China and 170 deaths. Other countries and the Chinese city of Hong Kong have reported at least 98 cases, bringing the worldwide total to more than 7,800.

France confirmed Thursday the virus spread from a patient to a doctor who now is being treated in an isolated room at a Paris hospital, raising concerns that the virus is adapting to human transmission.

“This is a global crisis,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University. “WHO should have declared an emergency sooner. There is no time to lose.”

In response to WHO’s declaration, the United Kingdom’s chief medical officer raised the public risk from low to moderate, although no confirmed cases have been reported there.

Additionally, Russian authorities announced they were closing the border with China until March 1, taking similar actions as Mongolia and North Korea to bar crossings to prevent importation of the virus.

For hours on Thursday, Italy locked down a cruise ship with about 6,000 passengers and staff on board over fears that a Chinese national and a traveling companion had the coronavirus. The travelers on the Costa Smeralda ship ultimately tested negative for the illness, Italian health authorities reported.

Before WHO’s declaration, airlines began halting or cutting down on flights to China as countries, including the U.S., work to evacuate their nationals.

This week, President Trump formed a task force to coordinate the response to the coronavirus, the White House said. The task force includes National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and representatives from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, as well as the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. It has been meeting daily since Monday, the White House said.

Meanwhile, U.S. stock exchanges closed higher Thursday as tensions eased after WHO declared a global emergency. WHO’s director did not recommend limiting travel or trade to China.

But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggested the U.S. economy could benefit from China’s outbreak by encouraging American manufacturers in China to return to the States.

“I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America. Some to U.S., probably some to Mexico as well,” Mr. Ross told Fox Business Network.

And the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday cancelled its tour of Asia over concerns about the virus, citing the “health and well-being” of its musicians.

Twenty U.S. airports now are conducting entry screenings, up from five last week. The State Department warned Americans not to travel to China, raising the travel advisory to the highest level after WHO’s announcement Thursday

Last weekend, Chinese health officials locked down at least 17 cities, including Wuhan, ahead of the Lunar New Year, shutting down public transportation and quarantining more than 50 million people.

Health officials have praised China for its response to the outbreak, rapidly identifying the virus and publicly sharing its genetic code. Dr. Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director, stressed that the global health emergency announcement is not a reflection of WHO’s confidence in China’s ability to manage the virus. If not for China’s actions, he said, it is likely there would be more cases and deaths worldwide.

China has agreed to work with other countries on this new, evolving coronavirus outbreak. WHO said it expects further spread of the virus and that all countries should be ready to survey, detect and manage cases.

“The only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said. “We are all in this together. And we can only stop it together.”

⦁ Tom Howell contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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