Just hours after the first person-to-person spread of the new, deadly coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, had reconvened the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, which recommended the designation on Thursday. Speaking from Geneva, Switzerland, Tedros said the move would allow the organization increased authority in coordinating the global response to the outbreak.
Tedros said the declaration should not be seen as a “vote of no confidence in China,” which he said had set a new standard for outbreak response through its commitment to limit the spread of the infection.
“Over the past few weeks we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen,” Tedros explained. “The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak despite the social and economic impact it is having.”
“WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak,” he added. “Our greatest concern is the virus’s potential to spread to countries with weaker public health systems."
Meanwhile, the new case in the U.S. involved the spouse of a previously identified patient in Chicago, the CDC said.
“We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, we still believe the immediate risk to the American public is low,” Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, told reporters.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said the spread “was among two people who were in close contact for an extended period of time.” In other words, the new patient may have only been able to contract the virus because he had sustained, prolonged exposure to his wife.
That woman was diagnosed as the second confirmed patient in the United States on Jan. 21 after traveling to Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, officials said. The newer patient does have some underlying medical conditions, is in the hospital with his wife, and is about the same age (she is in her 60s), according to the agency.
Messonnier noted on Thursday that the CDC was working to prevent “community transmission from happening here” and “trying to strike a balance in our response right now” to handle the outbreak while not sparking panic stateside.
She added that the agency did not recommend the use of face masks to the general public, even in Chicago.
At last count, there were a total of 165 “patients under investigation” for the virus in 36 states in the U.S., and 68 of those cases had come back negative. Only six people have tested positive for the virus. There were 21 people in Chicago being tested for possible infection, with those most at risk being older citizens or anyone with an underlying health condition, according to Messonnier.
The CDC expects more cases of the virus to be confirmed in the U.S., including transmissions from person-to-person, officials said.
Redfield and other federal health officials also briefed lawmakers during a closed-door hearing on Thursday.
“If this does turn into some kind of pandemic situation here in the U.S.—which we hope it will not—I am concerned about the time it will take to develop a vaccine and get it distributed to the American public,” said Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations panel. “While we have been able to shorten the time it takes to develop new vaccines, the time it takes to ramp up production and deliver those vaccines to the public is something that I am still very much concerned about.”
The other confirmed cases in the U.S. include patients at Arizona State University in Tempe; in Orange County, California; a man in his 30s in Washington state; and a passenger who felt ill after flying into Los Angeles International Airport. Each of those cases involve patients who had recently traveled from Wuhan.
A Kalitta Air Boeing 747 carrying nearly 200 American diplomats and citizens was evacuated on Tuesday and arrived early Wednesday at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, California. Passengers underwent two medical screenings in China before boarding, two more screenings upon their layover in Alaska, and voluntarily agreed to remain on the premises for additional checks by the CDC at the air force base, where they were given assigned living quarters. Authorities have said they will transport any passenger with symptoms to a hospital.
The U.S. State Department announced on Thursday that it will provide additional evacuation flights “on or about Feb. 3” to accommodate the more than 700 private American citizens still stuck in Wuhan who have requested government assistance in getting out of the port city.
The flights will be available on a “reimbursable basis” and passengers will again be subject to “CDC screening, health evaluation, and monitoring requirements” before, during, and after travel, according to a press release.
A day earlier, President Donald Trump announced the formation of a “president’s coronavirus task force” to lead the federal response to the outbreak in the U.S., alongside the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC.
By Thursday, China’s death toll from the infection had reached 171, with 8,149 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to state media outlets. A day earlier, the number of infections in China officially eclipsed the tally of 5,327 people infected with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus that killed about 800 people across the globe in 2002 and 2003.
The CDC has also sent a team to China to assist health officials in that country, after alleged rebukes from authorities when they were presented with previous offers.
At last count, there were 98 cases confirmed outside of China in 18 countries, according to the World Health Organization. Even with global efforts to curb the spread of the virus, confirmed cases have now emerged in Finland, India, and the Philippines, said the organization, in addition to others previously reported in Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, Macau, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, France, Canada, Vietnam, and Nepal. There have been no reported deaths outside China.
Authorities did say on Wednesday, however, that they had confirmed person-to-person transmission in Germany, Vietnam, and Japan.
Japan, Australia, South Korea, France, Morocco, Germany, Kazakhstan, Britain, Canada, Russia, the Netherlands, and Myanmar were working to evacuate their citizens from the epicenter of the virus. Six hundred Australian citizens who were to be flown out of China’s Hubei province will be subsequently isolated for up to 14 days on Christmas Island, which is about 1,600 miles northwest of mainland Australia, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Meanwhile, Russia is closing its Far East border with China in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to Mikhail Mishustin, the country’s new prime minister.
Several international airlines had either suspended or reduced service to China by Thursday morning, including American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Delta, United, Air Seoul, KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.
The WHO has for some time now recommended this rapidly-spreading condition be referred to as 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease, where “n” stands for novel and “CoV” for coronavirus, to distinguish it from past outbreaks.