WHO chief arrives in China for talks on coronavirus crisis as death toll jumps

Lee Jeong-ho

The head of the World Health Organisation arrives in Beijing on Monday to discuss ways of slowing the spread of the new coronavirus, just as the death toll from the disease in mainland China jumped sharply to 80, with more than 2,800 people infected so far.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will meet Chinese health officials to collect further information on the outbreak which originated in Wuhan, in the central province of Hebei, one day after it was revealed that 5 million residents left the city before it was locked down ahead of the Spring Festival holiday last week.

“I am on my way to Beijing, to meet with the government and health experts supporting the coronavirus response,” Ghebreyesus wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “My WHO colleagues and I would like to understand the latest developments and strengthen our partnership with China in providing further protection against the outbreak.”

The WHO is yet to declare a global health emergency in response to the crisis, although cases have been identified across the world – including in the United States, France, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, Nepal and Australia.

“We are working 24/7 to support China and its people during this difficult time and remain in close contact with affected countries, with our regional & country offices deeply involved,” Ghebreyesus said in a follow-up tweet. “WHO is updating all countries on the situation and providing specific guidance on what to do to respond.”

Ghebreyesus said the WHO had already activated “global networks of experts” and was also working with other countries to “activate their response systems”.

The WHO last week said it needed more data before making an emergency declaration. “Make no mistake ... This is an emergency in China,” Ghebreyesus said on Thursday. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency.”

On Sunday, the mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, said about 5 million residents had already left the city before the lockdown was imposed on Thursday, two days before the annual holiday.

Officials in Beijing have sought to assure the world that China is taking adequate measures to contain the virus and are emphasising that the situation in mainland China is under control.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said an expert group from the WHO had arrived in Wuhan for a field visit and “praised” China’s measures. He also hosted a “special meeting” at the ministry on Saturday to remind all attending officials to handle the containment of the outbreak as “a political task of utmost importance”.

Wang also gave a telephone briefing to his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, at the latter’s request, according to a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry on Sunday.

“We have built an all-round and multilevel prevention and control system focusing on Wuhan and Hubei … All are open and transparent, and we will speed up [the implementation of prevention] progress in a scientific and orderly manner,” Wang told Motegi, according to the statement.

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