WUHAN (AFP) – The World Health Organization on Wednesday warned all governments to “take action” over the deadly SARS-like virus spreading from China, as hundreds of foreigners were evacuated from the epicentre of the outbreak.
So far, the novel coronavirus has claimed 132 lives in China and infected more than 6,000 people in the country and elsewhere. New cases were reported in Finland and the United Arab Emirates.
The WHO called an urgent meeting for Thursday over whether the viral epidemic should be declared a global health emergency — a designation that can lead to increased international coordination.
Airlines around the world are either suspending or paring back services in and out of China, following cases of human-to-human transmission outside the country.
In the sporting world, the World Indoor Athletics Championships set for March in Nanjing have been pushed back to 2021, and World Cup skiing races have been cancelled.
“WHO is monitoring this outbreak every moment of every day,” the organization’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva, as he announced his decision to convene crisis talks.
On Twitter, Tedros said the organisation “deeply regrets” what he called a “human error” in WHO reports last week that referred to the global risk of the outbreak as “moderate” instead of “high”.
Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters that “the whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action.”
Ryan said declaring a global health emergency could streamline the measures taken — a preferable scenario to the “potential recipe for disaster” of nearly 200 nations acting individually.
Both Tedros and Ryan hailed China for its “extraordinary” efforts so far to contain the epidemic.
Airlifts in full swing
In China, some countries worked to airlift their citizens out of the central city of Wuhan, whose 11 million residents are now under strict quarantine.
A US charter flight from Wuhan with about 210 Americans on board, including consular staff, was met at a California military base on Wednesday by emergency vehicles with flashing lights and personnel in white biological hazard suits.
The evacuees will be monitored for symptoms and sent to local hospitals if they are found to be ill, the Pentagon said.
More than 200 Japanese nationals were brought home Wednesday, but only a handful of them were hospitalised for tests after they reported they felt unwell or showed flu-like symptoms.
Some 250 French citizens and 100 other Europeans will be flown out of Wuhan on board two French planes this week.
Australia plans to house any citizens evacuated on an island normally used to detain asylum seekers.
A growing number of governments — including the United States, Britain and Germany — have advised their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China.
China has urged its own citizens to delay trips abroad, with more than 15 other countries having confirmed cases of the disease, including three with cases of human-to-human transmission.
Flights scrapped, stores closed
British Airways was the first major airline to announce a suspension of flights to and from China, citing the travel advice of Britain’s foreign office.
Many others followed suit, including German flag carrier Lufthansa, which said all flights to mainland China would be suspended until February 9.