WHO experts to again weigh nCoV emergency status as more nations affected

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that its novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) emergency committee will meet again tomorrow to assess if outbreak developments warrant a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), as China reported more than 1,400 new cases, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Finland report their first cases.

The announcement comes a day after top WHO officials returned from meeting with China's president and health minister. At a media briefing today, Mike Ryan, MD, said the WHO is restarting emergency talks due to China's ongoing surge of cases and evidence of human-to-human spread outside of China, which total six cases now.

"It's still a very active outbreak and is changing by the hour," he said.

WHO committee to meet tomorrow

Ryan, who as the WHO executive director of health emergencies was part of the WHO delegation that traveled to China this week, said he was impressed with the engagement of the Chinese government in responding to the outbreak. "I've never seen a scale of commitment at this level."

He added that the goal of a WHO-led expert joint mission that is set to visit China, which was announced yesterday, is to gain a better common understanding of the outbreak alongside Chinese colleagues.

The outbreak is at an important juncture, Ryan said, adding that he believes that transmission chains can still be interrupted.

A PHEIC, if the committee recommends one and the WHO's director-general declares one, can help countries coordinate their public health measures to minimize the spread of the virus and also minimize the impact on travel and trade. The committee's reconsideration of the events comes as some airlines began suspending flights to and from China, such as Southeast Asia-based Lion Air Group and British Airways, according to an Agence France Presse (AFP) story today. Some airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, have scaled back their flights due to low demand.

Tomorrow's emergency committee meeting will be the third since the outbreak was announced. In split decisions last week, the group held off in recommending a PHEIC to gather more information. In its first meeting, on Jan 22, the experts decided to wait a day before reconvening on Jan 23.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, the WHO's director-general, said he wishes the emergency committee had an option for making an intermediate recommendation, short of a full PHEIC. He said discussions are under way into a more tiered public health emergency approach, a topic raised during earlier global outbreaks.

In other WHO developments, the group said it launched a private-public collaboration called "The Pandemic Supply Chain Network," an effort to gather information about market capacity and risk assessment for personal protective equipment in order to match demand with supply. It hopes to complete the assessment by Feb 5. The WHO detailed the new effort today in its daily situation report.

Yesterday, the WHO launched a clinical database platform to allow countries to contribute clinical data in a standardized way, which will help gather information about patients for guiding medical treatment and public health measures.

Chinese cases pass 6,000

Early today China's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 1,459 new cases spanning 31 of its 33 provinces and administrating regions, boosting the overall total to 5,974. It also reported 26 more deaths, lifting the fatality count to 132. A situation update from the WHO said today that 1,239 illnesses are severe.

A Chinese medical site that flagged new reports from China's provinces and cities put the total this afternoon at 6,095 cases, 133 of them fatal. Hubei province, home to Wuhan, where the outbreak was first reported, accounts for roughly half of the cases, with four provinces now reporting more than 200 cases: Zhejiang, Guangdong, Hunan, and Henan.

Apart from affected parts of Hubei province, cities reporting the highest numbers of cases are Chongqing, Beijing, and Shanghai.

UAE, Finland announce first cases

The WHO's Eastern Mediterranean office (WHO EMRO) said today that the UAE has reported four patients, who are members of the same family who arrived from Wuhan in China earlier this month and were hospitalized on Jan 25 and Jan 27 after testing positive for 2019-nCoV. Two are asymptomatic.

WHO EMRO said more cases are likely to be detected in other countries, including in the Middle East region.

Elsewhere, Finland's health ministry announced its first case, which also involves a traveler from Wuhan, making it the third country in Europe, in addition to France and Germany, to report cases. A health ministry statement today said the man is isolated at the Central Hospital of Lapland. About 15 contacts are under monitoring.

More travel-linked cases elsewhere

A handful of countries outside China's mainland that reported earlier cases announced more travel-linked cases, including Australia, France, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, according to official and media reports. Also, Japan reported another local case in a person who had contact with a tour group from Wuhan.

In Australia, one of the new cases is from Queensland involves a 44-year-old Chinese citizen from Wuhan, and the other involves a man in his 60s from Victoria whose symptoms began on Jan 23, bringing the country's confirmed case total to seven, SBS News reported today.  According to a separate media report, the second patient had traveled to Wuhan and started having symptoms 2 days after returning to Australia.

In a related development, Australia's Doherty Institute today announced that its scientists are the first to grow and share a 2019-nCoV isolate from a patient sample. In a press release, the lab said this is the first time the virus has been grown in cell culture outside of China.

Having the actual virus enables researchers to validate and verify test methods and to generate an antibody test for use in serology samples, which are used to identify exposure to the virus in people who weren't sick to get a more accurate picture of how widespread and deadly the virus is. The virus is also useful in vaccine development.

French officials today reported the country's fifth patient, the daughter of an 80-year-old man who was previously hospitalized for his infection, Reuters reported today, citing the country's health minister.

Hong Kong today reported 2 more cases, raising its total to 10. The patients are a couple from Wuhan, a 72-year-old man and a 73-year-old woman who flew to Hong Kong on Jan 22, according to a statement today from Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection (CHP). Their symptoms began on Jan 25. They are isolated in the hospital and are in stable condition.

Malaysia today reported three more cases, all in people from China, lifting its total to seven. The patients are a 4-year-old girl and a 52-year-old man who had been under earlier observation, according to The Star, an English-language newspaper based in Malaysia, which quoted Malaysian health officials. The third patient is the daughter-in-law of the man identified as the country's first case.

Japan reports more local spread

Meanwhile, Japan reported a second local case, a 40-year-old female tour guide who had contact with the same bus carrying Wuhan travelers that was linked to Japan's first local case, according to a health ministry statement translated and posted by Avian Flu Diary, an infectious disease news message board. Japan now has eight 2019-nCoV cases.

According to the latest info from the WHO, 15 countries outside of China have reported 68 confirmed cases.

See also:

Jan 29 WHO emergency committee statement

Jan 29 AFP story

Jan 29 WHO situation report

Jan 28 WHO situation report

Jan 29 China CDC daily update

Chinese medical community (DXY) 2019-nCoV tracking website

Jan 29 WHO EMRO statement

Jan 28 Finnish health ministry statement

Jan 29 SBS News story

Jan 29 ABC News (Australia) story

Jan 29 Doherty Institute press release

Jan 29 Reuters story

Jan 29 Hong Kong CHP statement

Jan 29 Star story

Jan 20 AFD post

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