GENEVA • The World Health Organisation, which declared the accelerating outbreak a global health emergency on Thursday, voiced fresh concern that the virus could spread undetected in a country with a weak health system.
The WHO's declaration - officially called a "public health emergency of international concern" - has been issued only five times since the relevant legislation took effect in 2007 - for swine flu, polio, Zika and twice for Ebola outbreaks in Africa.
The designation, reviewed every three months, allows the WHO to issue global recommendations that the international community is expected to follow. It does not have the force of law. Governments then make their own decisions about how they protect themselves.
The WHO stopped short of declaring an emergency last week because its emergency committee was divided over the issue.
The declaration "is not a vote of no-confidence in China", said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director-general. "On the contrary, the WHO continues to have confidence in China's capacity to control the outbreak."
The declaration comes now, he said, because of fears that the coronavirus may reach countries with weak healthcare systems, where it could run amok, potentially infecting millions of people and killing thousands.
Declaring emergencies is always a hard decision, Dr Tedros had said. Border closings and flight cancellations may cause hardships for millions of healthy people near the epicentre as well as massive economic disruption. In the worst cases, supplies of food and medicine can run short and panic can spread, threatening to do more damage than the disease.
Borders should be kept open and people and trade flowing in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, although countries have a sovereign right to take measures to protect their citizens, the WHO added.
There is a "huge reason to keep official border crossings open" to prevent people from entering irregularly and going unchecked for symptoms, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a Geneva briefing.
"If travel restrictions would be imposed, we hope they are as short-lived as possible to try to continue the normal flow of life," he added.
Dr Tedros praised the Chinese government, saying that it "is setting a new standard for outbreak response". Other countries should be grateful that only 98 of the nearly 10,000 cases confirmed so far have occurred outside China's borders, he noted.
Dr Tedros, who met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Tuesday, said he was struck by how much Mr Xi knew about the outbreak and by the fact that Mr Ma Xiaowei, director of China's National Health Commission, was on the ground in Wuhan leading the response.
A WHO delegation was allowed to visit Wuhan for just one day.
Dr Gauden Galea, the organisation's representative in Beijing, said the visit was not intended "to pass judgment". "Everything is being done with a sense of intensity, and to our assessment, good practice," he added.
REUTERS, NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE