U.S. health officials said Thursday that they had confirmed the first person-to-person transmission of the deadly coronavirus in the United States.
Robert Redfield of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said a Chicago man who contracted the virus had been in close contact with his wife, a recent traveler to Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak that has killed 170 people.
The new coronavirus infection was the nation’s sixth. The other five involved people who returned to the U.S. after traveling to China.
Earlier Thursday, the U.S. announced new flights to Wuhan to evacuate Americans still in the city, according to The Washington Post. The CDC said none of the 195 Americans evacuated Wednesday from Wuhan showed symptoms of coronavirus infection. They will remain at a U.S. military base in California at least through the end of the week.
Several other countries have evacuated their nationals from Wuhan. International airlines have suspended direct flights to China.
The chief of the World Health Organization said it would decide Thursday whether to declare the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency. The WHO said last week that the outbreak did not meet that threshold, but that was before the number of confirmed cases soared to 7,711, including more than 1,700 new cases on Wednesday.
“The continued increase in cases and evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China are, of course, deeply concerning,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at WHO headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday, a day after he visited Beijing. “Although the numbers outside China are relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”
Tedros said 99% of all confirmed cases were in China. Fifteen other countries have confirmed 68 cases. All but one of the 170 deaths have occurred in Wuhan and in Hubei province.
The number of new coronavirus cases now exceeds those of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic that killed 800 people worldwide.
Tedros praised Beijing for its response.
“China’s efforts to contain the outbreak at the epicenter have been essential for preventing the further spread of the virus,” he said. “China identified the pathogen in record time and shared it immediately, which led to the rapid development of diagnostic tools.”
U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed on the outbreak by those he called the "great agencies" working with China.
"We will continue to monitor the ongoing developments. We have the best experts anywhere in the world and they are on top of it 24/7," he tweeted late Wednesday.
The White House has said it is considering further restrictions on U.S. airlines flying to China, in addition to the voluntary restrictions implemented by some air carriers. It has not yet decided whether to impose a travel ban.
The CDC said the risk of infection to Americans was low and that it was working with the WHO to get a U.S. team to China as soon as possible.
The CDC's Dr. Nancy Messonnier said Wednesday that the symptoms of a cold or the flu and the coronavirus are the same, but the risk factor for the latter involves having visited China's Hubei province or having close contact with those who were there.
On Thursday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the virus could help create jobs in America. Ross said in an interview with Fox Business that the deadly virus was “very unfortunate” but that it and other viruses that originated in China constituted a “risk factor” that businesses must consider when deciding whether to begin operations in the country.
Britain announced Thursday that it would evacuate its citizens from Wuhan this week, following Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia and other nations. The WHO criticized Australian plans to quarantine its nationals flown out of Hubei on a remote island in the Indian Ocean.
Britain's British Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa said Wednesday that they were suspending all direct flights to and from mainland China. South Korea’s Korean Air, Egypt Air and Scandinavian Airlines joined other airlines that have either suspended or cut service to China.
Hong Kong stopped all high-speed rail and ferry services from the mainland, while the territory and Malaysia have banned entry to visitors from Wuhan.
Kazakhstan, which shares a border with China, suspended all flights to China Wednesday and planned to cancel train service Thursday.
Russia said Thursday that it was closing its border with China, following similar moves by Mongolia and North Korea.
Authorities have imposed a virtual quarantine on Wuhan, banning people from traveling in and out of the city. Several other cities in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, faced heavy restrictions on movement. Wuhan is racing to complete two new field hospitals to treat the growing number of patients. The virus is believed to have emerged late last year at a local seafood market illegally selling wildlife.
More evacuations, cases
A chartered jet flew 206 Japanese nationals from Wuhan to Tokyo's Haneda airport earlier in the week. Japanese officials told reporters in Tokyo that 12 of the passengers were taken to a hospital after complaining of feeling ill, and at least three of them had tested positive for the virus. Medical personnel were on board the flight to screen the passengers before takeoff and again when the plane landed.
Japan sent a second chartered flight Wednesday evening to evacuate more nationals and was planning to send a third.
India and the Philippines announced their first confirmed cases Thursday, joining a growing list of nations that included Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
The virus hit China just as it was beginning Lunar New Year celebrations, resulting in the canceling or the scaling back of festivities for tens of millions of Chinese.
VOA's Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.