WHO weighs declaring new coronavirus worldwide public health emergency

Laverne Higgins
January 23, 2020

The central Chinese city is where the virus first developed in a seafood market where animals were being sold.

Doctors at the University of Hong Kong published an initial paper on Tuesday modelling the spread of the virus which estimated that there have been some 1,343 cases in Wuhan - similar to a projection of 1,700 last week by scientists at Imperial College, London.

There are now 440 confirmed cases and 17 deaths linked to the virus in China, according to the BBC.

The World Health Organization started an emergency meeting Wednesday to decide whether or not to declare a rare global public health emergency over the disease, which has now been detected in the United States, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Macau.

"The NIH is in the process of taking the first steps towards the development of a vaccine", Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told journalists.

The number of new cases has risen sharply in China, the centre of the outbreak. Thailand has confirmed four cases.

Chinese officials yesterday confirmed the virus has spread between humans, suggesting it can be passed through coughs and sneezes. This is important in determining the risk of a much larger outbreak developing with spread to people who have not travelled to Wuhan.

It spread to 24 countries before it was brought under control.

To earn that WHO designation, the outbreak would have to rise to the level of being "an extraordinary event" that endangers global public health, according to the WHO's procedural guidelines. There has been some excellent and very speedy work by authorities in China and the research results have been made available to the world very rapidly indeed.

Dr. Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford University, said there were three criteria for such a determination: the outbreak must be an extraordinary event, there must be a risk of worldwide spread and a globally co-ordinated response is required. Despite which estimates of the size of any outbreak are very hard to predict at this early stage, but it is clearly still spreading. "I think we are more anxious about our kids".

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The outbreak was reported to the World Health Organisation on 31 December. "Whether health screening at airports makes a useful contribution to reducing spread is a moot point".

Coronavirus is a group of viruses which can cause pneumonia or severe conditions such as Middle East respiratory syndrome, Mers, and severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS. Other coronaviruses circulate among animals including camels, cats and bats.

Countries have intensified efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen - known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

More than 500 cases have now been reported, with the majority in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province. Consequently, in the light of the recent outbreak, there is understandable fear of another such epidemic.

But WHO's Asia office tweeted this week that "there may now be sustained human-to-human transmission", which raises the possibility that the epidemic is spreading more easily and may no longer require an animal source to spark infections, as officials initially reported.

Symptoms include cough, fever and sore throat.

China has already shared the genome sequencing of this novel coronavirus with the worldwide scientific community.

Hospital staff stand outside the emergency entrance of Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

However, the milder nature of the virus can also cause alarm. "Finally, information about who is at risk of serious disease and death will indicate whether the risk is to all ages as was with SARS or mostly in the elderly with co-morbidities such as diabetes or chronic lung disease".

Li said around 2,200 people are now in isolation after being in contact with infected patients.

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