The World Health Organization has called on the global community to work together to fight the new coronavirus that is causing an epidemic of viral pneumonia and deaths in China, but stopped short of declaring it a public health emergency of international concern.
After the second day of meetings of the emergency committee, WHO’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Thursday that nobody should assume there was no risk that it would become a dangerous global epidemic.
“Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China,” he said. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”
There have been 584 cases and 17 deaths reported to the WHO so far, Tedros said, although reports from China confirmed an 18th death on Thursday in Hebei province – the first outside Hubei province, where the outbreak began in the city of Wuhan. Chinese state television put the number of confirmed cases at 634 by Thursday evening.
All the deaths and 575 cases were inside China, which is where all human-to-human transmission of the virus had so far occurred, said Tedros. “There is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” he said.
“We know this virus causes severe disease and can kill, although for most people it causes mild disease,” he added. A quarter of those who became ill had severe disease and most of those who died had underlying poor health, such as heart disease.
There are many unknowns that need answers from the world’s experts who must work together, such as the source of the virus, how easily it spreads, the clinical features and its severity. The committee’s decision, he said, “should not be taken as a sign WHO does not think the situation is serious or that we are not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Peter Piot, a professor of global health and the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the outbreak was at a critical stage and international collaboration and more resources were vital to stopping it in its tracks.
“There are still many missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle to fully understanding this new virus, which is spreading rapidly across China and most probably around the world. Over the coming days and weeks we will know much more, but there cannot be any complacency as to the need for global action,” he said.
“The good news is that the data to date suggest that this virus may have a lower mortality than Sars. We have a diagnostic test and there is greater transparency than decades gone by. And that is essential because you cannot deal with a potential pandemic in one country alone.”
Anxieties in the UK and around the world are already running high. The Scottish government said five people were being tested for the novel coronavirus. The Prime minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said that the tests were “purely precautionary”.
Prof Jürgen Haas, head of infections at the University of Edinburgh, said he expected there would be many more suspected cases following those in Scotland that emerged overnight.
“The situation will be pretty similar in pretty much all UK cities with a large number of Chinese students. It’s not too surprising. My suspicion is that there will probably be many more cases in many other cities in the UK. None of the cases I know of have been confirmed.”
The virus has a long latency of between five and 14 days when there are no symptoms. Haas said the testing would be done by Public Health England.
The Scottish government confirmed that the patients had been in Wuhan recently. “Following travel to Wuhan, China, two people confirmed as diagnosed with influenza are now being tested for Wuhan novel coronavirus as a precautionary measure only. Three further people are also undergoing testing on a similar precautionary basis,” said a government spokesman.
“There are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK and the risk to the Scottish public remains low.”
He said they had “robust arrangements to manage emerging diseases and are monitoring this situation closely”. They would update the information further only if they had any confirmed cases, he added.
Belfast’s Royal Victoria hospital was also said to have a patient who was being tested for the new coronavirus, but the Belfast health trust refused to comment.
Universities with large numbers of Chinese students said they were giving out information and advice, encouraging them to report any possible symptoms. Dundee, which has a joint education partnership with Wuhan University, said it had advised students to be careful with any packages they might receive from the city, especially if they contained food.
The US Centers for Disease Control warned citizens to avoid all but essential travel to Wuhan, in line with the advice from the UK government, while Egypt and Turkey joined the growing list of countries introducing screening at ports for travellers arriving from China.
There are no treatments available for those who fall sick, although Chinese doctors will be trialling potential new drugs – particularly those already being tested for use in Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which is a more lethal member of the coronavirus family.
A programme has already been launched to speed up work towards a vaccine. Cepi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, said it hoped to have a vaccine in clinical trials within 16 weeks.