Coronavirus outbreak declared a global health emergency by WHO

  • Video report by ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

China’s coronavirus has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Health experts made the announcement on Thursday evening following a meeting of the WHO emergency committee in Geneva.

Director-General of WHO Tedros Adhanom said "a previously unknown pathogen" has "escalated into an unprecedented outbreak."

"The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries," he said.

"Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it."

The health body confirmed there are 98 cases in 18 countries outside China, including eight cases of human-to-human transmission.

According to WHO figures, there are 7,711 confirmed and 12,167 suspected cases in China, with 1,370 severe cases.

Mr Ghebreyesus said declaring the outbreak an international public health emergency did not show a lack of confidence in China.

The WHO emergency committee was complementary of China's response to the outbreak.

"The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak, despite the severe social and economic impact those measures are having on the Chinese people," Mr Ghebreyesus said.

"We would have seen many more cases outside China by now - and probably deaths - if it were not for the government's efforts, and the progress they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world."

Last week, WHO said it was "too early" to declare an international public health emergency but on Thursday said action was needed to help countries to prepare for the possibility of it spreading further.

The UK increased the risk level of coronavirus from low to moderate following the WHO announcement.

  • Science Editor Tom Clarke explains what will happen when Brits arrive back from China:

The death toll has reached 170 in China, as the first evacuation flight from virus-hit Wuhan to the UK has been cleared for takeoff.

The flight was expected leave Wuhan - the city at the centre of the outbreak - at 7am local time (11pm GMT) and arrive in the UK on Friday morning.

One family - Natalie Francis and her three-year-old son, Jamie - initially decided to stay in Wuhan because of the risk of trying and failing to get on the flight because Jamie only has a Chinese passport.

But they suddenly received a phone call from the Foreign Office to say they would probably be able to get on the flight so dropped everything to go.

With extra passengers going through medical screening at the airport now, their flight was delayed and is expected to take off at 8.30am local time.

Jamie, 3, is making his way to the UK with his family. Credit: Natalie Francis

It is thought around 150 people will be on the flight and passengers say they have been told only to take hand luggage.

Passengers on the evacuation flight, which will have military medics on board, will land at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on Friday morning.

It is understood they will then be taken to Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside, where they will be quarantined for 14 days at a former student accommodation block.

An earlier planned flight was scheduled to leave on Thursday, but was cancelled as it was understood Chinese officials had not yet granted permission for the chartered flight to depart.

It comes as more countries have reported infections of the deadly virus.

Russia is closing its 2,600-mile border with China, joining Mongolia and North Korea in barring crossings to guard against the outbreak.

It had been de facto closed because of the Lunar New Year holiday, but Russian authorities said the closure would be extended until March 1.

A pilot wearing a protective suit parks a cargo plane at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. Credit: AP

Train traffic between the countries was halted except for one train connecting Moscow and Beijing, but air traffic between the two countries continued.

Russia has not confirmed any cases of the virus.

Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea confirmed their first cases of person-to-person spread of the virus.

The man in the US is married to a 60-year-old Chicago woman who got sick from the virus after she returned from a trip to Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

The CDC has released an illustration of the 2019 coronavirus strain. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

There have been cases reported of the infectious virus spreading to others in a household or workplace in China and elsewhere.

The case in South Korea was a 56-year-old man who had contact with a patient who was diagnosed with the new virus earlier.

Human-to-human spread of the virus outside China has also occurred in Germany, Japan, Canada and Vietnam.

Funeral workers disinfect themselves after handling a virus victim in Wuhan. Credit: AP

The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill there during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, a cousin of the new virus.

The latest figures for mainland China show an increase of 38 deaths and 1,737 cases for a total of 7,736 confirmed cases.

Of the new deaths, 37 were in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and one was in the south-western province of Sichuan.

Outside China, there are 82 infections in 18 countries, according to WHO.