The World Health Organization on Wednesday warned all governments to take action over the deadly novel coronavirus as China reported its biggest single-day jump in deaths caused by the new disease.
The WHO, which initially downplayed the severity of a disease that has now killed 170 in China, warned all governments to be on alert as it weighed whether to declare a global health emergency.
The Chinese government reported 38 new deaths in the 24 hours to Thursday, the highest one-day total. All but one were in Hubei province, the capital of which is Wuhan, where the virus originated in a wild animal market.
The number of confirmed new cases also grew steadily to 7,711, the National Health Commission said. Another 81,000 people were under observation for possible infection.
The pathogen is believed to have been spawned in a market that sold wild game, spreading far and wide by a Lunar New Year holiday season in which hundreds of millions of Chinese travel domestically or abroad.
The virus has claimed 170 lives in China and infected more than 7,000 people in the country and elsewhere. New cases were reported in the Philippines, Finland and the United Arab Emirates.
The WHO called an urgent meeting for Thursday over whether the viral epidemic should be declared a global health emergency—a designation that can lead to increased international coordination.
Airlines around the world are either suspending or paring back services in and out of China, following cases of human-to-human transmission outside the country.
In the sporting world, the World Indoor Athletics Championships set for March in Nanjing have been pushed back to 2021, and World Cup skiing races have been canceled.
“WHO is monitoring this outbreak every moment of every day,” the organization’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva, as he announced his decision to convene crisis talks.
On Twitter, Tedros said the organization “deeply regrets” what he called a “human error” in WHO reports last week that referred to the global risk of the outbreak as “moderate” instead of “high.”
Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, told reporters that “the whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action.”
Ryan said declaring a global health emergency could streamline the measures taken—a preferable scenario to the “potential recipe for disaster” of nearly 200 nations acting individually.
Both Tedros and Ryan hailed China for its “extraordinary” efforts so far to contain the epidemic.
In China, some countries worked to airlift their citizens out of the central city of Wuhan, whose 11 million residents are now under strict quarantine.
A US charter flight from Wuhan with about 210 Americans on board, including consular staff, was met at a California military base on Wednesday by emergency vehicles with flashing lights and personnel in white biological hazard suits.
The evacuees will be monitored for symptoms and sent to local hospitals if they are found to be ill, the Pentagon said.
More than 200 Japanese nationals were brought home Wednesday, but only a handful of them were hospitalized for tests after they reported they felt unwell or showed flu-like symptoms.
Some 250 French citizens and 100 other Europeans will be flown out of Wuhan on board two French planes this week.
Australia plans to house any citizens evacuated on an island normally used to detain asylum seekers.
A growing number of governments—including the United States, Britain and Germany—have advised their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China.
China has urged its own citizens to delay trips abroad, with more than 15 other countries having confirmed cases of the disease, including three with cases of human-to-human transmission.
British Airways was the first major airline to announce a suspension of flights to and from China, citing the travel advice of Britain’s foreign office.
Many others followed suit, including German flag carrier Lufthansa, which said all flights to mainland China would be suspended until Feb. 9.
Others pared back their service, like American Airlines, KLM and United.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has reduced flights, citing low demand and the city government’s response plan to the virus.
In one of the most dramatic measures, the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea announced no travelers from Asia would be allowed in.
“Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak,” Tedros said.
China has effectively cut off Hubei province to try to contain the spread of the virus, banned tour groups from travelling overseas, suspended classes and extended the Lunar New Year holiday.
Most street traffic in and around Wuhan—where the virus originated in a wild animal market —has been banned, leaving more than 50 million people shuttered in their homes.
“This is the first day since the lockdown that I’ve had to go out,” a man in his 50s said on the mostly deserted streets of the industrial city on Wednesday.
“I have no choice because I need to buy food.”
The scale of the deepening crisis was emphasized with the total number of infections on the Chinese mainland exceeding that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-03.
But the death toll is so far much lower than SARS, which claimed nearly 800 lives around the world— with most fatalities in China and Hong Kong.
The virus has rattled global markets and started to dent the Chinese economy.
Japanese automaker Toyota said it would keep its plants in China closed until at least Feb. 9. Swedish furniture giant IKEA will temporarily close half of its 30 stores on the mainland.
Tech giant Foxconn said Wednesday that Taiwan staff at its vast network of factories in China do not need to return to work until mid-February, a move threatening supply chains for everything from iPhones to flat-screen TVs and laptops.
US fastfood giant McDonald’s said it had closed all its locations—”several hundred” restaurants—in Hubei.
Chinese authorities have taken extraordinary steps to arrest the virus’s spread, including effectively locking down more than 50 million people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province.
But that was yet to pay dividends, with the government reporting 38 new deaths in the 24 hours to Thursday, the highest one-day total. All but one were in Hubei.
Japan’s infection rate grew to 11 after three Japanese citizens among more than 200 on an evacuation flight Wednesday tested positive.
Officials had already confirmed two cases in which patients tested positive without having travelled to China, adding to anxiety over human-to-human transmission of the respiratory disease.
“We are in a truly new situation,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told parliament.
The fact that two of the three new confirmed Japanese cases showed no symptoms underscored the scale of the challenge for health workers.
The WHO has come under fire after it last week declined to declare a global health emergency.
As the “world’s factory”, the disruptions in China are expected to send ripples through supply chains globally, denting profits.
US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the new coronavirus posed a fresh risk to a fragile world economy, adding that the US central bank was on alert.
“There will clearly be implications at least in the near term for Chinese output and I would guess for some of their close neighbors,” Powell said.
The contagion has spread to nearly every corner of China, with remote Tibet reporting its first case on Thursday.
While some foreigners were able to escape Wuhan, others were still waiting to leave.
Pregnant, newlywed and now trapped at the Chinese epicenter of a global health crisis, Thai national Aphinya is among thousands of foreigners desperate to escape—and watching helplessly as the US and Japan fly their citizens home.
“I feel hurt that they don’t care about us,” Aphinya Thasripech, 32, said.
“Either I could starve or I’ll get infected and die,” said the factory worker, who is two months pregnant.
Aphinya arrived in China only two weeks ago to marry her Chinese husband in Xiantao—about 200 kilometers from Wuhan.
Now the city is a virtual ghost town, with restaurants and shops shuttered.
Aphinya said she is worried for the health of her unborn baby, and desperate for the Thai government to get her out.
For days, the government in Bangkok has said they are awaiting “permission” from China to evacuate 65 citizens known to be at ground zero.
But the wait is taking its toll.
“Sooner or later, it will get to us,” said Aphinya, adding she had heard that a man had collapsed in a restaurant near her.