January 29, 2020 / 4:45 PM / a month ago

WHO lauds Chinese response to virus, says world 'at important juncture'

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization (WHO) praised China on Wednesday for its efforts to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, but voiced “grave concern” about person-to-person spread in three other countries which led it to summon its Emergency Committee again.

Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme speaks during a news conference on the situation of the coronavirus at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The panel of 16 independent experts will meet behind closed doors on Thursday for the third time in a week to consider whether the epidemic now constitutes a global emergency.

Twice last week it declined to do so, citing a need for more information and evidence, but the virus has spread rapidly and has now been detected in 15 other countries.

“The continued increase in cases and the evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China are of course both deeply concerning. Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

There are 6,065 cases worldwide, all but some 70 in China, with 132 deaths in China, according to the latest WHO figures.

“In the last few days the progress of virus especially in some countries, especially human-to-human transmission worries us - in Germany, in Vietnam and also in Japan,” Tedros told the news conference, speaking on return from China.

“If this gets into a country with a weak health system then that can be problematic,” he added.

Tedros was lavish in his praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials for their commitment to transparency during their “very candid discussions” in Beijing.

“I was very encouraged and impressed by the president’s detailed knowledge of the outbreak and his personal involvement in the outbreak. This was for me a very rare leadership,” said Tedros, a former Ethiopian health and foreign minister.

China agreed to WHO sending an international team of experts, which is to be composed of WHO staff, Tedros said, still giving no details or timetable for their deployment.

Asked about the Trump administration’s efforts to get U.S. experts on the ground in China, he said that countries seeking to send their own experts should make “bilateral arrangements”.

Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO health emergencies programmes, who accompanied Tedros on the two-day trip, said that China had “a laser focus” on stopping the outbreak.

“We are at an important juncture in this event. We believe these chains of transmission can still be interrupted,” Ryan said.

“They are taking extraordinary measures in the face of what is an extraordinary challenge,” he said, referring to China.

The coronavirus has remained “remarkably stable”, according to Ryan, a veteran of outbreaks including the SARS epidemic in China in 2002/03 as well as Ebola outbreaks in West Africa.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Gareth Jones and Lisa Shumaker

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