Chinese embassy helping health chiefs stay alert to killer virus

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By Elesha George

Health officials in Antigua and Barbuda are hoping that their links with China through the local embassy will help them ward off the deadly coronavirus.

Minister of Health Molwyn Joseph told OBSERVER media up-to-date information on the illness would be available via the embassy.

“We’re not relying on the Chinese to help us create a response. We are treating it the same way we had to prepare ourselves for Ebola and, when we do so, we try to keep abreast of all the information that is available, so with this incident in China, we will be talking to them to see if we can garner any additional information that will assist us in our response,” Joseph explained.  

The Minister said officials will continue to coordinate with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to combat the threat.

Meanwhile, WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Thursday that it was too early to declare the coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

He said he was only able to make that declaration after “appropriate consideration of all the evidence”.

According to the Director General, WHO’s team is on the ground in China working with local experts and officials to investigate the outbreak and to get more information.

Ghebreyesus said most of the two dozen-plus people who have died presented underlying health conditions like hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease that weakened their immune systems. 

He also confirmed human-to-human transmission in China but said, to date, it would appear that it is “limited to family groups and health workers caring for infected patients”.

“At this time there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen,” he warned.

Professor Didier Houssin, Chair of the Emergency Committee whose job it is to give advice to the Director-General, said the emergency members were “very divided” on their views on whether this event constitutes a PHEIC or not.

Houssin said, “Several were reinforced in their idea that it should be considered PHEIC, considering the evolution of the epidemic, some increase in the number of cases, in the severity of the disease but several others say that it is too early because of limited number of cases abroad and also considering the efforts which are presently made by Chinese authorities in order to try to contain the disease.”

The Committee did agree on the virus’s urgency and suggested that members reconvene within days to examine the situation further.

There have been increased numbers of cases in China since the virus surfaced, with more than 800 confirmed as of Friday. The virus is said to have been imported to countries including the US, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.

A number of Caribbean countries are monitoring the situation, with Trinidad and Tobago’s Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh announcing that screening at the country’s airport has started.

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