TOKYO — The World Health Organization will reconvene its emergency committee Thursday, Jan. 30, to determine whether the coronavirus outbreak amounts to a public health emergency of international concern, as the total number of people infected with coronavirus in mainland China surpassed those infected with SARS during the 2002-2003 epidemic.
More than 6,000 cases have been confirmed in China, with thousands more suspected. Schools in Beijing have closed indefinitely, and foreigners who have been evacuated from Wuhan, which is at the epicenter of the outbreak, are starting to arrive in their home countries or at temporary screening sites, including via charter flights for Japanese and U.S. citizens.
Many countries are also curtailing flights to China, with British Airways suspending its two daily flights and India and Kazakhstan cutting back as well. Experts say a vaccine for the virus is still a long way off.
The death toll has risen to 132 in China, with 6,078 confirmed cases of infection as of Wednesday evening local time - a day-over-day increase of more than 1,000. Other countries in the region also are reporting more people infected - nearly all of them tourists from China.
In a series of tweets Wednesday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said that just 68 of the more than 6,000 new cases of coronavirus have been recorded outside China. But he cited person-to-person transmission in three different countries outside China as signaling "potential for further global spread."
"Of known cases, most people exhibit milder symptoms, but about 1 in 5 people have severe illness, including #pneumonia and respiratory failure," he wrote. He said he is concerned that the outbreak is coinciding with flu season and affecting health systems.
People who have contracted new #coronavirus are showing a wide range of symptoms. Of known cases, most people exhibit milder symptoms, but about 1 in 5 people have severe illness, including #pneumonia and respiratory failure.— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) January 29, 2020
Tedros added that he just returned from China, where he described holding "frank talks" with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who he described as having "taken charge of a monumental national response" to the outbreak. He went on to say he welcomed China's invitation to allow the WHO to lead a team of global health experts to assess the outbreak inside China and work with their Chinese counterparts. "I appreciate such openness & urge this to continue from [China] & all other countries," he said.
WHO deeply regrets the error in this week's situation report, which inserted the word “moderate” inaccurately in the #coronavirus global risk assessment. This was a human error in preparing the report. I have repeatedly stated the high risk of the outbreak https://t.co/Qp871ObmdE— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) January 29, 2020
Tedros said the "WHO deeply regrets" an error in a recent situation report on coronavirus, which he said inaccurately described the outbreak's global risk as "moderate." "This was a human error in preparing the report," he wrote. "I have repeatedly stated the high risk of outbreak."
The number of coronavirus cases in mainland China has now overtaken the total recorded during the 2002-3 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, although the death toll remains much lower.
Official Chinese government statistics show 5,974 confirmed cases in mainland China, with more than 9,000 suspected cases, 132 deaths and 103 people cured. Adding in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and 15 other countries, the total of confirmed cases tops 6,000.
The SARS outbreak saw 5,327 people infected in mainland China and 349 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
But SARS also hit 1,755 people in Hong Kong and killed 299 people there, and spread to more than two dozen other countries. In total it is thought to have affected 8,096 people and killed 774, according to WHO data,
The data underlines just how quickly the latest coronavirus has spread and the problems involved in getting it under control, experts say, especially with many believing the true number of infected people in China could be significantly higher than the official data show.
SARS was also a form of coronavirus thought to have originated in bats and passed onto humans through another animal.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on board his plane Wednesday morning that the United States is closely monitoring the outbreak but does not want to "overreact."
When asked whether the State Department is considering banning travel to China, Pompeo said he did not want "to get ahead of any decisions or talk about internal deliberations" but that U.S. authorities are watching closely for developments that could merit changes in travel advisories, "including banning travel."
"The American people should know that there are enormous efforts underway by the United States government to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the American people and to reduce the risk all around the globe," he added.
Still, he said, the United States does not "want to react in a way that actually has the potential to make things worse and not better."
in China, companies in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, should not resume work before Feb. 13, provincial governor Wang Xiaodong said Wednesday, according to Reuters.
The halt in business has raised concerns about disruptions to supply chains, although some companies say their output will continue as normal. Despite having a facility in Wuhan, the province's capital, Foxconn - an Apple supplier - has said it will be able to meet its "manufacturing obligations."
"We do not comment on our specific production practices, but we can confirm that we have measures in place" to ensure those obligations are met, the company told Reuters in a statement.
Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNBC that the company has closed one of its stores in China and is limiting travel to only what's "business critical." The uncertainty generated by the coronavirus outbreak is reflected in an unusually wide range in revenue guidance for the firm's next quarter, he said.
Another corporate giant, Starbucks, says it has closed half of its stores in China, where the coffee chain has experienced its greatest store growth in recent times.
Meanwhile, companies that produce face masks have seen their stocks jump and are working to meet skyrocketing demand.
"We are ramping up to full production - we're going 24/7," Mike Roman, CEO of 3M, which makes masks, said on CNBC.
This article was written by Simon Denyer and David Crawshaw, reporters for The Washington Post.