China locked down some 20 million people at the epicentre of a deadly virus outbreak on Thursday, but the World Health Organization said the disease did not yet constitute a global health emergency.
The respiratory virus killed at least 18 lives since emerging from a seafood and animal market in the central city of Wuhan, infected hundreds of other people and been detected as far away as the United States.
The new virus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
But after two days of talks to determine the level of global concern, the World Health Organization on Thursday stopped short of declaring a so-called a public health emergency of international concern — declaration used for the gravest epidemics.
“This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.
WHO had postponed its decision by a day, after Chinese authorities announced unprecedented measures to rein in the spread of the virus.
Tedros hailed China for taking “measures it believes appropriate to contain the spread of coronavirus in Wuhan and other cities.”
He stressed though that “we hope that they will be both effective and short in their duration.”
WHO emergency committee chairman Didier Houssin meanwhile told reporters that after receiving “precise information” from Chinese authorities, the health experts had determined that the travel restrictions were “not directly related to a specific evolution of the epidemiology in the city.”
WHO confirmed that the new virus can be passed between people, at least those in close contact. Chinese health officials warned it could mutate and spread further.
But Tedros stressed Thursday there was so far “no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China.”
If WHO had declared a global emergency, it would prompt countries to intensify their cooperation towards reining in the virus, including possibly on trade and travel restrictions — something the organisation is not recommending for the time being.
Countries have already increased efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen — known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) — with thermal screening of all passengers arriving from China at airports in a number of countries.
Several companies have also begun exploring developing a vaccine for the virus, with hopes that initial clinical trials could be carried out within months.
Tedros meanwhile hailed China for quickly spotting the new virus and for its “cooperation and transparency” in sharing vital information about it with the international community.
But a senior US State Department official said Washington was “still concerned” about transparency in the Chinese government.
During the SARS epidemic, the Chinese government took months to report the disease and initially denied WHO experts any access.
WHO’s emergency committee stressed the need for international vigilance and information sharing, and recommended a new meeting in “a matter of days to examine the situation further.”