BEIJING/GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States reported its first case of person-to-person transmission of a fast-spreading new coronavirus on Thursday, as a World Health Organization (WHO) panel met to reconsider whether the outbreak that has killed 170 people in China should be declared a global emergency.
The vast majority of the more than 8,100 cases detected globally, according to the latest official data, have been in China, where the virus originated in an illegal wildlife market in the city of Wuhan.
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.
Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a conference call that the flu-like virus was confirmed in a man in Illinois, bringing the total number of U.S. cases to six. The man’s wife, who was also infected, had previously travelled to China, but he had not.
Experts say cases of person-to-person transmission outside China are especially concerning because they suggest greater potential for the virus to spread further.
The total 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 1930 GMT.
Such a declaration would trigger tighter containment and information-sharing guidelines, but may disappoint Beijing, which had expressed confidence it can beat the “devil” virus.
It could also further spook markets, already shuddering at the ripple effects of damage to China’s economy. [MKTS/GLOB]
The virus has spread “exponentially” since the Emergency Committee last met a week ago, and person-to-person spread has been confirmed in five 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.
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.
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.
GRAPHIC: Online package of China virus news here
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.
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