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World Health Organization declares coronavirus outbreak a global emergency; US sees first person-to-person transfer

'Immediate risk to the American public is low,' a U.S. official says

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization declared the recent outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus a global health emergency on Thursday — the same day that American officials confirmed the first person-to-person transfer of the disease in the United States.

"Over the past few weeks we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak and has been met by an unprecedented response," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news conference Thursday at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.

In his remarks, Tedros said that were now 7,834 confirmed cases of the virus — 7,736 of which are in China — and that the disease's death toll currently stands at 170, all of which have been in China. Chinese state media, however placed the number of infected higher on Thursday, saying there were 8,123 cases in the country.

After describing China's efforts to contain the disease, he added, "We must act together now to limit further spread."

Tedros said that the WHO was declaring the outbreak a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern," which the organization defines as "an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response."

"The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries," Tedros explained. "Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to other countries with weaker health systems and which are ill-prepared to deal with it."

More important than the declaration itself, Tedros said, are the various recommendations about confronting the outbreak that go along with it. These include combating the spread of misinformation, accelerating the development of vaccines, and sharing information about how to combat the virus among others. In summarizing the recommendations, Tedros also stated that there was "no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade."

The news came on the same day that the U.S. confirmed its first case of person-to-person transmission of the virus.

In a phone conference with reporters on Thursday, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health explained that the spouse of a Chicago-area woman who had gotten sick with the virus after traveling to Wuhan, China — the epicenter of the viral outbreak — had also tested positive for the disease as well. Both patients are hospitalized in stable condition, the officials added.

However, that news is not necessarily cause for alarm, the CDC's chief said.

"Given what we've seen in China and other countries with the novel coronavirus, CDC experts have expected some person-to-person spread in the US," CDC Director Robert R. Redfield said in a statement. "We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, we still believe the immediate risk to the American public is low."

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