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Virus outbreak WHO experts worry as coronavirus spreads beyond China

Passengers at airport with face masks

The World Health Organization (WHO) says it is confident in China's ability to contain the coronavirus, but concern is mounting as health authorities reported the number of confirmed
cases had jumped.

(Keystone)

The spread of the new coronavirus from China to other parts of the world has triggered concern at the World Health Organization (WHO) and caused Swiss International Airlines and other carriers to suspend flights to the Asian nation.

Addressing journalists in Geneva on Wednesday after their return from China, WHO officials praised China and their leaders’ efforts to combat the new coronavirus. 

"I was very encouraged and impressed by President Xi Jinping's detailed knowledge of the outbreak and his personal involvement in the outbreak, this for me is real leadership", WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared. 

However, the speed and extent that the virus has spreadexternal link, as well as person-to-person transmission of the new coronavirus in three other countries - Germany, Vietnam and Japan - is worrying. 

There have been 7,711 cases of the flu-like virus in China, and 170 deaths, Chinese health authorities said late on Wednesday. The virus is now recorded in every region in the country. It has also spread to 16 countries worldwide. Around 70 cases have been reported outside China - according to the latest WHO figures.

"Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak," said Tedros.

WHO will therefore reconvene its Emergency Committee on Thursday, the third time in a week, to evaluate whether the coronavirus outbreak now constitutes an international emergency. If they do so, this would lead to a boost in public health measures, funding and resources to prevent and reduce international spread. 

Swiss citizens under quarantine

Meanwhile, Swiss authorities are exploring options to evacuate nationals keen to leave the quarantine city of Wuhan, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak in China. This follows evacuation announcements by various nations, including Japan, Germany and the United States. 

The Swiss Embassy in Beijing is in regular contact with Swiss nationals who are known to be in quarantined areas, including those who want to leave the country. On Thursday, Swiss public television (RTS)external link reported that 12 people in Wuhan were in touch with the embassy, both Swiss and some foreign spouses.

“The foreign ministry is in touch with various states in order to organize a possible evacuation,” foreign ministry spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger told swissinfo.ch. 

The Swiss embassy in China had registered eight Swiss citizens in Hubei province who live in the city of Wuhan, the Swiss foreign ministry had said on Sunday. At the time, half of them were no longer present and the others preferred to stay in the city.  

Fabienne Blaser, a student from Bern currently in Wuhan, told Swiss public televisionexternal link (SRF) that she was effectively under quarantine in the city and that the university required students to take their temperatures every day and send in the results online. 

She said that she would like Swiss embassy assistance to leave the country. In an interview in the German language paper TagesAnzeiger,external link Blaser said that she had reached out the embassy on Tuesday but there was no new information. 

A US government official told Reuters a US charter plane had left Wuhan with 220 people aboard, including 50 diplomats and contractors. The city of 11 million in the province of Hubei is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb. 

Flights cancelled 

The limited number of airlines willing to fly to China may complicate evacuation efforts. 

Swiss International Airlines (SWISS) and its parent company Lufthansa announced on Wednesday their decision to suspend flights to and from China due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. “For operational reasons, booking acceptance for flights to China (mainland) has stopped until the end of February,” Lufthansa said on Wednesday. 

Hong Kong will continue to be served as planned. Lufthansa, SWISS and Austrian Airlines are flying to their destinations in China one last time on Thursday so that passengers there and the crews can return to Germany, Switzerland and Austria. 

“We have cancelled 32 flights with approximately 4,000 passengers. SWISS will rebook the passengers concerned free of charge on other airlines,” SWISS spokeswoman Meike Fuhlrott told swissinfo.ch, confirming that flights to Beijing and Shanghai are suspended until February 9.

A number of other airlines, including American Airlines and British Airways, have suspended flights to mainland China as deaths from the fast-spreading new virus leapt from 26 to 133 and the first cases emerged in the Middle East. 

Cases analysed in Switzerland 

By Wednesday afternoon, 50 suspected cases of the coronavirus had been analysed in Switzerland. Daniel Dauwalder from the Federal Office of Public Health confirmed that all the cases were negative.

The office did not give details on the cases, specifically which cantons the cases were from. However, Keystone news agency reported that a 47-year-old man is in an isolation room in the Einsiedeln hospital, about 40 kilometres from Zurich, because of suspected coronavirus. He had been at the Hong Kong airport for a few hours on January 24th. This was confirmed by a hospital spokesperson according to Keystone. 

On Tuesday morning the all-clear had been given for two people that had been quarantined with suspected cases in the Triemli Hospital in Zurich. There are currently no confirmed cases of infection with the novel corona virus in Switzerland. 

Dauwalder did not indicate how many cases were still being analysed but noted that the process is ongoing. The health office has set up a hotline to answer questions from the public: +41 (0)58 463 00 00.

Cultural impact

Cultural events will also be affected. For example, of eight Chinese dancers scheduled to compete at this weekend's Prix de Lausanne ballet competition, three are now unable to participate.

Meanwhile, art insiders are concerned about how the coronavirus might affect the Art Basel Hong Kong edition in March.

Covid-19    Coronavirus expected to hit Swiss tourism industry

Officials say the coronavirus outbreak could lead to a 30-50% drop in the number of Chinese tourists to the Alpine country in the coming weeks.

This content was published on January 28, 2020 9:52 AM

Keystone-SDA/jdp/ds/sb/sm

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