People wearing masks in China
People wearing masks in ChinaReuters

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared on Thursday that the coronavirus epidemic in China now constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, Reuters reported.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the decision after a meeting of its Emergency Committee, an independent panel of experts, amid mounting evidence of the virus spreading to some 18 countries.

Tedros told a news conference in Geneva that recent weeks have witnessed an unprecedented outbreak which has been met by an unprecedented response.

“Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China,” he said.

“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” he added.

The WHO panel, chaired by Didier Houssin of France, is composed of 16 independent experts.

Last week the experts had twice decided not to declare an emergency while they sought more information from China and awaited evidence of confirmed person-to-person spread of the virus in other countries, so as to meet their criteria for a global emergency.

The declaration of a global emergency triggers recommendations to all countries aimed at preventing or reducing cross-border spread of disease, while avoiding unnecessary interference with trade and travel.

Meanwhile on Thursday, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman announced that Israel has banned flights from China from entering the country due to the spreading of the coronavirus.

The special directive was issued at the end of a meeting of the Health Ministry’s Emergency Department.

Earlier in the day, Israel’s national airline, El Al, announced that it had suspended flights between Israel and Beijing until March 25, following the lead of other airlines halting flights to and from China.

170 people have been confirmed as being killed by the coronavirus outbreak by Thursday morning, including 38 people killed since Wednesday.

A total of 7,711 infections have been reported as of Thursday morning, of which 1,737 were reported in the last 24 hours.