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WHO to hold coronavirus crisis meeting

January 30, 2020

The UN health agency has called a new round of crisis talks to decide whether the coronavirus outbreak constitutes an international emergency. The body said it "regrets" previously calling the virus risk "moderate."

Travelers wearing masks wait in line for taxis in Hong Kong as authorities tighten travel restrictions aiming to halt the spread of the new coronavirus
Image: Getty Images/A. Kwan

The World Health Organization (WHO) is to convene its expert committee again on Thursday to discuss whether to declare a global health emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.

The disease has killed 170 people and infected over 7,000 more since it was first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on December 31.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has just returned from China, said it was necessary to call another meeting — the third in a week — because of the virus' spread beyond China.

He referred specifically to evidence of human-to-human transmission in Germany, Vietnam and Japan, calling it a worrying development.

Read moreWhat constitutes an international public health emergency?

15 countries report cases

Since starting in the city of Wuhan, the outbreak has now spread to every province in China.

The virus has also spread overseas, with cases reported in more than a dozen countries.

The 16 members of the WHO's expert committee decided last week that the epidemic did not yet qualify as a global emergency, a label reserved only for the worst outbreaks, concluding instead that more information was needed.

The designation has only been applied five times by the Geneva-based UN health agency, including for Ebola and swine flu.

Tedros said most people who contract the coronavirus exhibit "milder symptoms" but about one in five have severe illness. He also said the WHO "deeply regrets" a mistake in three of its reports last week in which it described the global risk posed by the disease as "moderate" instead of "high." He put the misrepresentation down to "human error."

"China needs the world's solidarity and support," Tedros said. "The world is pulling together to end the outbreak, building on lessons learned from past outbreaks."

2% death rate

The coronavirus is believed to have originated in an animal market in Wuhan, where it jumped to humans before spreading across China. The total number of infections on the Chinese mainland has now surpassed that of the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, which resulted nearly 800 deaths.

Read moreOpinion: Coronavirus could strengthen China

Doctor Michael Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief, told a press conference Wednesday that the estimated death rate of those who contract the coronavirus is about 2% — lower than the 10% death rate for SARS. As with most diseases, the elderly, the very young and those with other health conditions tend to be at higher risk.

"We are at an important juncture in this event. We believe these chains of transmission can still be interrupted," said Ryan said. "They are taking extraordinary measures in the face of what is an extraordinary challenge," he said, referring to China.

nm, rs/se (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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