BEIJING/GENEVA (Reuters) – A World Health Organization (WHO) panel of experts met on Thursday to reconsider whether China’s fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak that has now killed 170 people should be declared a global emergency.
All the deaths so far have been in China, where the virus originated in an illegal wildlife market in Wuhan city, as have the vast majority of the more than 8,100 cases of the flu-like illness detected globally, according to official data.
But more than 100 cases have emerged in other countries, from Japan to the United States, spurring cuts to travel, outbreaks of anti-China sentiment in some places and a surge in demand for protective face masks.
“There’s only so much we can do,” said an official at Kukje Pharma Co, a South Korean firm considering doubling or tripling shifts to cope with a rush of orders for “tens of millions” of masks.
The number of infections in a health crisis that is forecast to sharply dent China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, has already surpassed the total in the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic.
The WHO held off twice last week from declaring a global emergency, but was meeting again in Geneva amid growing evidence of the coronavirus’ spread outside China. The outcome was expected to be announced around 1830 GMT.
Such a declaration would trigger tighter containment and information-sharing guidelines, but may disappoint Beijing, which had expressed confidence in defeating the “devil” virus.
It could also further spook markets, already shuddering at the ripple effects of damage to China’s economy. Global stocks tumbled on Thursday, while the yuan hit its lowest this year and oil prices slid.
The virus has spread “exponentially” since the Emergency Committee last met a week ago, and person-to-person spread, has been confirmed in four countries in addition to China. But there has been no death reported outside China and neither has the virus emerged in Africa, a Western diplomat told Reuters, asked about the likelihood the panel would declare an emergency.
“It is not clear that the time is ripe yet,” the diplomat said. “It would be more worrying if cases had been detected in Africa where some countries might not have the capacity to detect and isolate cases.”
SARS also came from China, killing about 800 people and costing the global economy an estimated $33 billion.
Economists fear the impact could be bigger this time as China now accounts for a larger share of the world economy. One government analyst has forecast the crisis would lop a percentage point off China’s first-quarter growth.
GRAPHIC: Tracking the novel coronavirus here
LOCKDOWN IN WUHAN
Almost all the deaths have been in Hubei province – of which Wuhan is the capital – where 60 million people are living under virtual lockdown.
“Most of the shops are closed. We cannot go out and buy food,” Si Thu Tun, one of 60 students from Myanmar trapped in Wuhan, told online news outlet the Democratic Voice of Burma.
“Honestly, I have one big potato and three packs of instant noodles and some rice,” he said. Myanmar plans a special flight to get the students out within three days.
Australia, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and Indonesia are quarantining evacuees for at least two weeks, though the United States and Japan plan shorter, voluntary isolation.
Three Japanese, from 206 evacuated on Wednesday, were infected. Two had not shown symptoms before they were tested.
India was the latest nation to report a case, a student of Wuhan University. And South Koreans protested at facilities earmarked as quarantine centres, throwing eggs at a minister.
The impact even reached an Italian cruise ship, whose 6,000 passengers were kept on board at the city of Civitavecchia while tests were conducted on a woman from Macau.
In China, local officials were facing anger from the public over their handling of the illness, and the health chief of Huanggang city – also in Hubei province, – was dismissed after being unable to answer basic questions on state television.
“I don’t know, I’m unclear … Don’t ask me how many people are being treated,” Tang Zhihong said on television. Her firing was announced in a terse statement hours later.
Title: Online package of China virus news here
‘WHEN CHINA SLOWS’ WE FEEL IT
Companies have been rattled by the epidemic and Alphabet Inc’s Google and Sweden’s IKEA were the latest big names to close China operations. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics extended its Lunar New Year holiday closure for some Chinese production facilities.
Airlines to suspend flights to mainland China include Air France, Lufthansa, Air Canada, American Airlines and British Airways.
Thousands of factory workers on currently on Lunar New Year holidays may struggle to get back to work next week due to travel restrictions.
China dominated U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s news conference on Wednesday. “When China’s economy slows down we do feel that,” he said.
Reporting by Pei Li, Gabriel Crossley, Cate Cadell, Kevin Yao and Muyu Xu in Beijing; Samuel Shen and David Stanway in Shanghai; Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha and Joyce Lee in Seoul, Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo and Se Young Lee; Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Kate Kelland in London; Crispian Balmer in Rome; Thu Thu Aung in Yangon; Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alex Richardson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Nick Macfie and Frances Kerry