The World Health Organization was considering Wednesday whether to declare a public health emergency as a deadly coronavirus that has killed at least 17 people in China continued to spread globally.
The WHO emergency committee met in Geneva a day after the first U.S. case, involving a Washington state resident, was reported. The virus has centered on Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, with cases also being confirmed in Thailand, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus would have the final say on whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. The organization has previously recommended emergency declarations for outbreaks of SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika and swine flu.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe infections such as pneumonia, SARS, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory System).
“We don’t know the magnitude of this outbreak, but we know from previous outbreaks that coronaviruses can spread quickly,” Trish Perl, a coronavirus expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, told USA Today. “Some people may not know they’re infected.”
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control began enhanced health screenings for coronavirus last week at airports in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Wuhan has closed its airport and train stations to outgoing passengers, BBC News reported Wednesday.
Dr. David Heymann, who headed WHO’s global response to SARS in 2003, said the new virus appears dangerous for older people with other health conditions, but doesn’t seem nearly as infectious as SARS.
“It looks like it doesn’t transmit through the air very easily and probably transmits through close contact,” he told the Associated Press. “That was not the case with SARS.”
The criteria for a WHO emergency are that the outbreak is an extraordinary event, there is a risk of international spread, and a globally coordinated response is required. “In my opinion, those three criteria have been met,” said Dr. Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford University.
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