Health and Science

Watch: WHO officials explain global threat of the coronavirus outbreak

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The World Health Organization on Thursday is holding its fourth news briefing to announce whether the flu-like coronavirus that has killed at least 171 people and infected more than 8,200 people around the world is a global health emergency.

WHO was expected last week to make its decision, but officials said they postponed their announcement to gather more data. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reconvened an emergency committee on the outbreak Thursday. The committee will advise Tedros on whether the outbreak now constitutes a "public health emergency of international concern" and what should be done to manage it.

The virus, which emerged Dec. 31, has already spread to more people than the 2003 SARS epidemic that sickened roughly 8,100 people across the globe over nine months. As of Thursday afternoon, 8,137 cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed in mainland China alone, according to Chinese state media, and more than 100 cases were confirmed elsewhere around the world — bringing the global total to at least 8,248.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Thursday the first person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus in the U.S. The transmission makes the U.S. at least the fifth country where the infection is now spreading through human-to-human contact, including China.

On Wednesday, Tedros told reporters that the "continued increase in cases and the evidence of human-to-human transmission outside of China are, of course, most deeply disturbing." The illness produces a range of symptoms with about 20% of the patients becoming severely ill, including pneumonia and respiratory failure, he said.

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

WHO doesn't enact the emergencies lightly, health experts say. The last time WHO declared a global health emergency was in 2019 for the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo that killed more than 2,000 people. The agency also declared global emergencies for the 2016 Zika virus, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu and the 2014 polio and Ebola outbreaks.

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