Experts to decide whether or not to declare coronavirus an international emergency

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Experts will meet again on 23 January to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency over China’s coronavirus, which has killed more than a dozen people in the country and closed down the city where it is thought to have originated.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) was expected to make the decision on 22 January but said it needed more information, describing the emergence of the disease as an “evolving and complex situation”.

Officials say at least 444 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in China’s Hubei province, where at least 17 people have died.

Hubei’s capital city Wuhan, which has a population of 11 million people, has essentially been shut down in a bid to arrest the spread of the virus.

Chinese state media said Wuhan had its train stations and airport closed, while ferries and long-distance buses were also stopped.

“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the WHO’s representative in China, told the Associated Press.

“It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”

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The People’s Daily newspaper also reported Hong Kong had its first confirmed case of the illness.

Hong Kong China Outbreak
WHO described the situation as “evolving and complex” (Kin Cheung/AP)

The UK government announced all direct flights from Wuhan into Heathrow would be subject to enhanced monitoring, while the Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to the city.

Following a meeting of an emergency committee on 22 January, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus said: “There was an excellent discussion during the committee today, but it was also clear that, to proceed, we need more information.

“For that reason, I have decided to ask the emergency committee to meet again tomorrow to continue their discussion and the chair, Dr Houssin, has agreed with that request.

“The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence.”

Switzerland China Outbreak
A WHO emergency committee could not reach a decision and will meet again (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP)

He said there is a team in China working with local experts and officials to investigate the outbreak, and he added: “We will have much more to say tomorrow.”

On 22 January the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said precautionary measures were being put in place at Heathrow after cases of the virus spread to other parts of the world.

China Outbreak
Those travelling from Wuhan to the UK will be subject to special screenings (Chinatopix/AP)

Meanwhile, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office updated its travel advice for China, with a spokesman saying: “In light of the latest medical information, including reports of some person-to-person transmission, and the Chinese authorities’ own advice, we are now advising against all but essential travel to Wuhan.

“The safety and security of British nationals is always our primary concern and we advise British nationals travelling to China to remain vigilant and check our travel advice on gov.uk.”

Public Health England (PHE) upgraded the risk to the UK population from coronavirus from “very low” to “low”.

China Outbreak
The risk to the UK population from coronavirus has been upgraded from “very low” to “low” (Dake Kang/AP)

A handful of cases have been identified abroad, including in Japan and the US, but there have been no reported cases in the UK.

Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the Medical Research Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said the estimated number of people infected with coronavirus in Wuhan is around 4,000, with a range between 1,000 and 9,700.

Explaining why there is global concern about the virus, Dr Josie Golding, epidemics lead at Wellcome, said it was because so little is known about it.

She added that there was a lot of “missing information”, like how easily it can be transmitted and where it is coming from.

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