Coronavirus Live Updates: 1st Death Outside Epicenter Is Reported, but W.H.O. Doesn’t Declare Emergency Yet


After two days of deliberations, an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization decided not to declare a global health emergency — but planned to meet again within 10 days, acknowledging the “urgency” of the situation.

The committee had first planned to issue a recommendation on Wednesday about whether to declare an emergency (the decision ultimately falls to the W.H.O.’s director general). Such a declaration would give the W.H.O. broader authority to shape different countries’ responses. But committee members were split.

On Thursday, after news of Wuhan’s travel restrictions and the increased death count emerged, the committee met again, and decided not to recommend the declaration. Several members thought it was “still too early,” the W.H.O. said in a news release.

Agency officials explained that although the disease has reached beyond China, the number of cases in other countries is still relatively small, and the disease does not seem to be spreading within those countries.

“At this time, there is no evidence of human to human transmission outside China,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director general, said at a news conference in Geneva. “That doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

“Make no mistake,” he said. “This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”

Only five global public health emergency declarations have been made in the past. The decisions are fraught, with health authorities wary of causing panic, or of suggesting that governments cannot handle outbreaks on their own.

Still, the W.H.O. called on the Chinese government to share more information on how it was handling the crisis.

The authorities expanded travel restrictions to several Chinese cities near Wuhan hours after announcing that the death toll and number of cases had risen sharply. Currently, at least 18 victims have been confirmed dead and more than 600 infected.

Schools throughout the province, which have breaks scheduled for the Lunar New Year holiday, will postpone their post-break start dates indefinitely.

The new virus, which first emerged at the end of December, has sickened people in Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States. It has raised the specter of a repeat of the SARS epidemic, which broke out in China in 2002 and 2003 and spread rapidly while officials obscured the seriousness of the crisis. That virus eventually killed more than 800 people worldwide.

In Beijing, the government said it would cancel large public gatherings for the holiday, including fairs at temples that usually draw shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, and the Forbidden City, a popular tourist attraction in the heart of the capital, will close starting on Saturday.

Dr. William Schaffner, a specialist in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the illness should be viewed in perspective. While a new virus spreading internationally gets more attention, the much more common influenza virus is the bigger hazard for most people, he said.

“If I look at this winter respiratory season, influenza is going to cause many more illnesses and more deaths than this coronavirus,” he said. “It’s one of those circumstances where, if familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it certainly breeds a certain nonchalance.”

Across Wuhan on Thursday, residents — some wearing masks, some sniffing or coughing — visited hospitals and clinics seeking treatment. In interviews with a New York Times correspondent in the city, some said they were angry about the sudden lockdown. Others said they were confused by the restrictions.

Outside the Wuhan No. 3 Hospital, Yang Lin, said she had come to the hospital to see if a sniffling cold she had might be the coronavirus. After a quick check, the doctors told her not to worry. But she was not reassured.

“They said it was just a common cold, and told me to get some medicine and go home,” Ms. Yang, 28, said. “But how am I to know? They didn’t even take my temperature. It’s just not responsible.”

The outbreak is testing Wuhan’s health care system. Several Wuhan residents said on social media websites that they had gone from hospital to hospital, waiting in lines for hours, only to be sent home with medicine and instructions to seek further treatment later if symptoms persisted in a few days.

“The majority of fatal cases are elderly and/or have a chronic disease that would increase their susceptibility to infectious diseases,” said Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.

In an unusually blunt interview, Dr. Guan Yi, a professor of infectious diseases in Hong Kong and expert on SARS, criticized the authorities in Wuhan for acting too slowly and obstructing his efforts to investigate the outbreak.

Dr. Guan, who helped successfully identify the coronavirus that caused SARS during the 2002-2003 outbreak in China, told the influential Chinese magazine Caixin that he was deeply frustrated by the city government’s response to the spread of the virus.

He and his team had visited Wuhan on Tuesday hoping that they could track the animal that was the source of the coronavirus but were shocked to find that residents at a market were not taking any precautions or wearing masks. No special measures were in place at the airport to disinfect surfaces and floors, either. This showed that the city government was being complacent despite the urgent orders handed down by Beijing, he said.

“I thought at the time, we had to be in a ‘state of war’, but how come the alarm has not been raised?” he told Caixin. “Poor citizens, they were still preparing to ring in the New Year in peace and had no sense about the epidemic.”

He also criticized the local authorities for disinfecting the market where many infections had been traced to, saying that made it difficult for researchers to investigate where the virus came from.

“I consider myself a veteran in battles,” he said, citing his experience with bird flu, SARS, and other outbreaks. “But with this Wuhan pneumonia, I feel extremely powerless.”

There are growing concerns that the Chinese authorities are underreporting the number of people who are ill with the virus. Relatives of patients say that some hospitals, strapped for resources as they deal with an influx of patients, are turning sick people away or refusing to test them for the coronavirus.

Many people remain skeptical of the government’s official statistics, with memories of the effort to cover up the severity of the SARS outbreak still fresh.

In Wuhan, Kyle Hui, an architect from Shanghai, said that doctors at Tongji Hospital declined to test his stepmother for the virus, even though she was showing symptoms like a cough and a fever. She died on Jan. 15 of “severe pneumonia,” according to a copy of her death certificate.

Mr. Hui said that hospital workers treated his stepmother as if she had the coronavirus, wearing hazmat suits. After she died, the hospital instructed the family to cremate the body immediately. Mr. Hui said that after her death, doctors informed the family that they suspected his stepmother had the coronavirus.

“I’m very sad my stepmother left without any dignity,” Mr. Hui said during an interview this week in a cafe in Wuhan. “There was no time to say goodbye.”

1:37 p.m. — Aboard the G79 high speed train

Half an hour out from Wuhan, the train is quite crowded with passengers. When I explain that I’m getting off at Wuhan, the reactions vary from advice — wear masks, don’t go, drink lots of water — to mordant jokes that I may be there a long time.

“You should know that they probably won’t let people out until the New Year holiday is over,” said one woman, who would only give her family name, Yang.

2:29 p.m. — Wuhan

Wuhan Railway Station, usually thronging with people in the days before the Lunar New Year holiday, is very empty. An announcement playing on a loop over the speakers tells the few people here that residents cannot leave the city and the station is temporarily closed.

But that assessment immediately drew fire from the international health community.

The study’s lead author, Wei Ji of the Peking University Health Science Center School of Basic Medical Sciences, did not actually find the new coronavirus in a snake, noted David Robertson, a professor at the University of Glasgow. Instead, Dr. Ji and his colleagues compared the genomes of an assortment of viruses and hosts and claimed to find a similarity between the genomes of the new virus and snakes.

Dr. Ji did not respond to an email query by the time of publication.

The announcement that the city of Wuhan would be temporarily sealed off from the outside world starting at 10 a.m. on Thursday came while most residents were asleep at 2 a.m.

Some decided to flee the city.

Residents were seen hauling their luggage to a train station in the early hours before the citywide lockdown took effect, the Chinese news outlet Caixin reported. Several people said they would buy tickets for any destination as long as they could leave Wuhan, the magazine reported.

Lines of passengers in masks and down jackets, lugging suitcases, formed outside the major Hankou railway station just 20 minutes before the cutoff time, a live video by media outlet The Paper showed.

Han Zhen and Wang Mengkai, two migrant workers from Henan Province, said they had rushed to the railway station in order to leave on Wednesday night, but missed the last train out.

Both said they were frustrated by the sudden lockdown and were scrambling to find a way home.

“It’s serious but not that serious,” said Mr. Wang, who works in an electronics parts factory. “We’re trying to figure out how we can get home. If we can’t get out on a train, we’ll try putting together a car with a driver.”

Asked if they were motivated to leave by fear of the virus, Mr. Han said: “No, we are not scared.”

“It’s the New Year, we just have to go home,” he added.

Reporting was contributed by Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, Russell Goldman, Chris Buckley, Javier Hernández, Austin Ramzy, Gillian Wong, Steven Lee Myers, Tiffany May, Elaine Yu, Denise Grady, Karen Zraick, Roni Caryn Rabin, Carl Zimmer and Rick Gladstone. Amber Wang, Albee Zhang, Claire Fu, Elsie Chen, Yiwei Wang and Zoe Mou contributed research.


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