WHO Warns Coronavirus Is ‘High Risk,’ Stops Short of Declaring Emergency

GENEVA - As the number of reported coronavirus infections soared Thursday to 584 cases worldwide, the World Health Organization warned that the outbreak in China represents a "high global risk." However, the WHO stopped short of declaring a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" or PHEIC, which would put the virus on the same level as the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in July last year.

"We know that this virus can cause severe disease, and that it can kill, although for most people it causes milder symptoms," Ghebreyesus said. "We know that among those infected, one-quarter of patients have experienced severe disease. We know that most of those who have died had underlying health conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease that weakened their immune systems.

"We know that there is human-to-human transmission in China, but for now it appears limited to family groups and health workers caring for infected patients. At this time, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China, but that doesn't mean it won't happen."

The virus originated in the city of Wuhan and has caused at least 18 deaths in China. Scientists at Imperial College London warn the true number of cases could be much higher.

"Most cases have been epidemiologically linked to exposure at a seafood market in Wuhan, which has been closed since 1 January, 2020, in efforts to contain the outbreak. Using the number of cases detected outside China, the report finds it is possible to infer the number of clinically comparable cases within Wuhan City that may have occurred thus far," Imperial College scientists said Thursday in a press release.

"The report estimates that a total of 1,723 cases of '2019-nCoV' (Coronavirus) in Wuhan City had onset of symptoms by 12th January, 2020 (the last reported onset date of any case before the report's publication)," the statement adds.

New infections were reported Thursday in Singapore and Vietnam, and the virus also has been found in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States.

Wuhan, with a population of 11 million, is in lockdown. Police have been deployed across the city and people are being told not to enter or leave the city. The security measures are being rolled out across Hubei province as the number of cases has soared in recent days.

Residents planning to travel for the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations this weekend are being turned away as public transit is cut off in and out of thAt the Beijing airport, travelers are taking what precautions they can.

"I'm really worried. I'm really scared it will become the next SARS. That's why we all wear masks," said Cindy Chen, who was traveling to the city of Nanning this week for Lunar New Year.

Chinese state television showed medical workers screening passengers at airports across the country. Any with high temperatures are being quarantined.

Experts say the coronavirus is not yet as serious as past epidemics, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, which killed almost 800 people.

"It's the closest relative of SARS that we know. And therefore, it has to be regarded as something that's really potentially quite dangerous," Derek Gatherer, a virologist at Britain's Lancaster University told VOA. "Having said that, the case fatality rate that's the proportion of infected people that day is considerably lower than SARS."

"It's particularly important that the Chinese get all the support that they need to really nip this thing in the bud in Wuhan, and making sure that all contacts of all cases are traced and quarantined, and that everybody who has respiratory symptoms in Wuhan is tested for the virus," Gatherer said.

Across the world, authorities are ramping up the screening of travelers. Experts say the biggest fear is human-to-human transmission of the virus outside China, which could indicate the start of a global epidemic.

Source: Voice of America