The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the outbreak of the coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern,” allowing U.N. member countries to take measures such as closing their borders, canceling flights, and screening visitors to prevent further transmission.
“Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China,” WHO director Tedros Adhanom said in press conference. There have been at least 170 confirmed deaths — all occurring in China — as a result of the outbreak, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
“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,” Adhanom added.
The WHO confirmed 7834 cases of the virus, 99 percent of which exist in China. The Chinese government has quarantined Wuhan in an effort to limit the virus’s transmission.
Coronavirus, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms, is related to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a virus that originated in China and killed hundreds of people in 2002 and 2003.
Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) warned earlier Thursday that the Chinese were not admitting the seriousness of the outbreak.
“There was a 28% increase in coronavirus cases overnight in China,” Cotton tweeted. “Make no mistake, though: these aren’t ‘new’ cases. Just what China is willing to admit. It’s much worse.”
Simultaneously with the WHO’s announcement, the U.S. State Department placed all “all non-emergency U.S. government employees” in China on “authorized departure,” giving them permission to voluntarily leave the country over concerns of the epidemic.
A government source told Axios that the decision was made “out of an abundance of caution related to logistical disruptions stemming from restricted transportation and availability of appropriate health care related.”
“The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General across China will continue to provide consular services, as resources allow,” the source added.
The Center for Disease Control also said Thursday that the first U.S. case of direct human-to-human transmission had been reported in Chicago, with the first five confirmed cases all involving recent visits to Wuhan.