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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A virus in China that has infected hundreds of people and killed 17 more is not yet a global health emergency, the World Health Organisation declared on Thursday.
The WHO issued its evaluation after Chinese authorities locked down three cities earlier in the day and canceled major events in the capital, Beijing, during the Lunar New Year holiday period to try to contain the outbreak.
During a news conference in Geneva, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while the outbreak clearly rose to an emergency in China, “it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”
He added that the decision shouldn't be taken as a sign that the WHO "does not think the situation is serious or that we’re not taking it seriously".
Nothing could be further from the truth,” Mr Adhanom Ghebreyesus added. “WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day.”
The United Nations health agency made the decision after independent experts spent two days assessing information about the spread of the newly identified coronavirus.
“It’s too early to consider this as a public health emergency of international concern,” Didier Houssin, the chair of the emergency advisory committee, said, noting that the panel “was very divided, almost 50-50.”
WHO defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. Previous global emergencies have been declared for the Zika virus in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic, and polio.
A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater money and resources, but may also prompt nervous foreign governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. The decision therefore can be politically fraught.
In 2014, WHO resisted declaring the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa to be a global emergency because it feared the announcement would anger Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
During a news conference in Geneva, Mr Houssin suggested that China’s view of the outbreak was a factor in Thursday’s decision.
“The perception of this declaration by the international community, in the most affected country, by the people struggling with the virus, certainly has to be considered,” he said.
Meanwhile, a Saudi health ministry affiliate said on Thursday there were no cases of coronavirus in the kingdom, denying earlier reports of an expatriate resident being infected.
Earlier, India's minister of state for external affairs said an Indian nurse working at a hospital in southwestern Saudi Arabia has been infected by the coronavirus and was being treated, amid an outbreak that has killed 17 people in China.
But the Saudi Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a tweet that there were no cases of the novel coronavirus so far.
The kingdom said on Wednesday it would start screening passengers arriving from China and take other preventive measures following the outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December.
The virus, which can pass from person to person, has since been reported in Thailand, Japan and South Korea, raising concerns about its spread through international air travel. More than 630 people have been infected, mostly in China, but cases have been detected as far away as the United States.
Elsewhere in the Gulf region, Qatar called on its citizens in China to exercise caution against the virus, the state news agency reported on Thursday.
While airports in many major cities globally have started health screenings for arriving passengers from China, Mr Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “for the moment, WHO does not recommend any broader restrictions on travel or trade.”
Updated: January 24, 2020 12:02 AM
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