The World Health Organization (WHO) called a new coronavirus that killed 18 people in China and infected about 650 worldwide “a Chinese emergency” on Thursday but stopped short of declaring the international epidemic.
Chinese state television announced that so far 634 cases have been confirmed. The Chinese National Health Commission announced 17 deaths from the Hubei virus, the province at the center of the epidemic, and the health authorities recorded the first Chinese death outside of Hubei.
In at least seven other countries non-fatal cases were identified.
Health officials fear the rate of transmission could increase with hundreds of millions of Chinese traveling home and abroad during week-long holidays for the Lunar New Year, beginning on Saturday.
Nevertheless, calling the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” was a “bit too early,” panel chair of the WHO Emergency Committee Didier Houssin said after the body was meeting in Geneva. Such a designation would have forced countries to step up their response internationally.
Scrambling to contain the outbreak, the local government in Wuhan, a
town of 11 million people in the province of Hubei, halted most transportation on Thursday, including outgoing flights, and ordered people not to leave. Hours later, similar measures were declared by neighboring Huanggang, a city of about 7 million people.
Nevertheless, the group said it had not yet proposed any wider travel or trade restrictions.
It is suspected that the previously unknown virus strain originated from illegally traded animals at an animal market in Wuhan in late last year.
It has created alarm because there are a number of unknowns surrounding it. It is too early to know how harmful it is, and how quickly it can spread among people.
There is no virus vaccine that can spread through breathing transmission. Symptoms include fever, breathing difficulties, and coughing.
Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said China statistics showed that nearly three-quarters of cases occurred in people over 40 years of age, with some 40 percent of cases having underlying health problems.