Chinese officials agreed on Tuesday to allow international experts from the United Nations health agency to enter the country as soon as possible and join in efforts to combat a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 100 people.
The World Health Organization's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said after a meeting in Beijing with China's President Xi Jinping that their agreement will help to "guide global response efforts" focused around the outbreak first detected in December in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
China will defeat the “devil” coronavirus, Xi said at the meeting with Tedros, according to Chinese state media. “The epidemic is a devil," Xi was quoted as saying. "We cannot let the devil hide."
Tedros was joined at the meeting by other senior WHO and top Chinese officials. China's government has cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities in Hubei province to bar citizens from leaving and spreading the virus, an extraordinary measure keeping more than 50 million people in a lockdown.
At the meeting, China's National Health Commission spoke about its ability to respond and manage respiratory disease outbreaks. The talks focused on containment in Wuhan, a city of 11 million inhabitants. China’s death toll from the new viral disease has jumped to 106, including one in Beijing. The commission said China has 4,515 confirmed cases so far, including 976 people in serious condition.
Tedros said China's top leadership was treating the outbreak in a serious and transparent manner, and has been sharing data and the genetic sequence of the virus with international health officials.
“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” he said in a statement. "WHO is working closely with the government on measures to understand the virus and limit transmission."
Last week, WHO held two days of talks to assess how concerned the global health community should be about the coronavirus outbreak. A panel of experts decided it did not yet rise to the level of a so-called public health emergency of international concern. Such a designation is typically used to fast-track more international research and action.
Borders closing, travel restricted
WHO said much remains to be known about the new virus, 2019-nCoV, from the coronavirus family. The source of the outbreak and extent that it has spread in China are not yet known. Around 20% of those infected have experienced severe illness, according to the U.N. agency, but the sheer number of cases being reported, including those outside China, has been "deeply concerning."
Scientists and health officials said they believe the virus may have spread to people from wild animals sold at a Wuhan market. China has banned trade in wild animals and advised people to stop eating that sort of meat. Outside of China, more than 65 cases of the virus —but no deaths — were reported elsewhere in the world as of Tuesday, according to Chinese officials and news media reports.
Those included infections in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Macao, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. Many of the cases involved people who had recently arrived from China. American health officials also have offered to send a team to China from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
North Korea and Mongolia closed their borders with neighboring China to prevent the spread of the virus. Hong Kong’s leader said it cut rail links and halved its flights between mainland China.
The United States and some other nations were preparing to airlift their citizens from Wuhan, a center of China's steel industry and major manufacturing and distribution center for many consumer products. University of Hong Kong researchers estimated that at least 25,630 people in Wuhan had symptoms of the virus, and some 44,000 were infected but not yet showing symptoms.