UNITED NATIONS - The chief of the World Health Organization says it will decide Thursday whether to declare the coronavirus outbreak that has now killed 170 people a global health emergency.
The WHO said last week 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 Wednesday, a day after he visited Beijing. “Although the numbers outside China are relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”
Several countries have evacuated their nationals from Wuhan -- the Chinese city at the epicenter of the outbreak. International airlines have suspended direct flights to China.
Tedros said 99% of all confirmed cases are 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 calls 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 by some air carriers. It has not yet decided whether to impose a travel ban.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said none of the 195 American passengers evacuated Wednesday from Wuhan show symptoms of coronavirus. They will remain at a U.S. military base in California at least through the end of the week.
The CDC said the risk to Americans is low and that it is working with the WHO to get a U.S. team to China as soon as possible.
The CDC's Dr. Nancy Messonnier said Wednesday the symptoms of a cold or the flu and the coronavirus are the same, but the risk factors are having visited China's Hubei province or having close contact with those who have been there.
Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said at a White House news conference Thursday “there’s been no person-to-person transmission within the United States” and that “extensive screening, appropriate quarantine and isolation” continues.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the virus could help create jobs in America. Ross said in an interview with the Fox Business TV the deadly virus was “very unfortunate” but that it and other viruses that originated in China is a “risk factor” businesses must consider when deciding whether to begin operations in the country.
Another chartered jet flew 206 Japanese nationals from Wuhan to Tokyo's Haneda airport. 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 have 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.
Britain announced Thursday it would evacuate its citizens from Wuhan this week, following Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia and other nations. The WHO is criticizing 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 they are suspending all direct flights to and from mainland China. South Korea’s Korean Air, Egypt Air and Scandinavian Airlines have also joined other airlines that have either suspended or cutt service to China.
Hong Kong is stopping all high-speed rail and ferry services from the mainland starting Friday, while the territory and Malaysia have banned entry to visitors from Wuhan. Mongolia has closed its vast border with China.
Kazakhstan, which shares a border with China, said all flights to China would be suspended Wednesday and train service would be canceled on Thursday.
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, are facing 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.
Russia said Thursday it is closing its border with China, following similar moves by Mongolia and North Korea.
India and the Philippines announced their first confirmed cases Thursday, joining a growing list that includes Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Vietnam.
The World Health Organization said most of those are people who had a travel history in Wuhan, with several others having contact with someone who traveled there.
The virus hit China just as it was beginning celebrations to mark the Lunar New Year, resulting in the canceling or the scaling back of festivities for tens of millions of Chinese. Officials took an extra step Sunday to extend the holiday by three extra days to cut down on group gatherings.