Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Coronavirus: China moves to reassure US of transparency as crisis deepens

Supplies of protective gear strained as number of confirmed cases passes 34,000

The World Health Organisation has warned all governments to be on alert and screening has been stepped up at airports around the world. Getty Images
The World Health Organisation has warned all governments to be on alert and screening has been stepped up at airports around the world. Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to reassure the US and World Health Organisation (WHO) of his country’s continued transparency and maximum effort in battling the coronavirus outbreak which has now killed more than 630 people.

The Chinese leader discussed the health emergency with US President Donald Trump in a call on Friday.

"We talked about, mostly about the coronavirus. They're working really hard and I think they're doing a very professional job," Mr Trump told reporters at the White House.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday the United States would offer up to $100 million (Dh 367 million) to China and other impacted countries to combat the fast-spreading virus.

Mr Pompeo said the State Department "has facilitated the transportation of nearly 17.8 tons of donated medical supplies to the Chinese people, including masks, gowns, gauze, respirators and other vital materials".

Deaths in mainland China soared to 717 on Saturday, surpassing the toll from the Sars outbreak on the mainland and Hong Kong almost two decades ago.

Another 81 people died from the virus in central Hubei province, where the disease emerged in December, according to the regional health commission.

In its daily update, the commission also confirmed another 2,841 new cases. There are now more than 34,000 confirmed infections across the country.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), a disease from the same family as the new coronavirus, left nearly 650 people dead in mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

The virus is believed to have emerged from a market selling exotic animals in Wuhan before jumping to humans and spreading across China and abroad as millions travelled for the Lunar New Year holiday.

Researchers at the South China Agricultural University have identified the endangered pangolin as a "potential intermediate host" for the disease, as the genome sequences of viruses found on the scaly mammal are 99 per cent identical to those on coronavirus patients.

The virus has since spread across China, prompting the government to lock down cities of tens of millions of people, and panic has spiralled around the globe as more than 240 cases have emerged in two dozen countries.

Supplies stretched as outbreak continues to spread

Demand for masks, gowns, gloves and other protective gear has risen up to 100-fold and prices have soared due to the virus, producing a "severe" disruption in global supply, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

The situation has been made worse by people who are not medical workers buying the protective gear for their own use, Mr Tedros added.

"When supplies are short and demand is high, then there could be bad practices like hoarding in order to sell them at higher prices, and that's why we ask for solidarity," he said.

"Demand is up to 100 times higher than normal and prices are up to 20 times higher," and the rush has created supply backlogs of 4-6 months, he added.

Frontline health workers in China, where 31,211 confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported, need the bulk of such supplies, he said.

Mr Tedros said he had spoken to manufacturers and distributors to ensure supplies for those who need them most, with healthcare workers a priority, followed by the sick and those caring for them.

The WHO has sent major shipments of gloves, masks, respirators and other "personal protective equipment" - known as PPE in its jargon - to every region, he said.

"We call on countries and companies to work with WHO to ensure fair and rational use of supplies and the re-balancing of the market. We all have a part to play in keeping each other safe," Mr Tedros said.

Mike Ryan, WHO's top emergencies expert, said that the supply chain started with producers of raw materials, going "all the way back to the rubber plantation, all the way down the chain to that health worker, and everything in between".

"At every stage of the supply chain there is a possibility for disruption, or profiteering or diversion," he said.

Apple contractor Foxconn said Friday it would start making face masks alongside iPhones at its Shenzhen factory, aiming for 20 million by the end of February.

WHO criticises 'unacceptable stigma' as cruise line bans Chinese citizens

At least 61 people on board a cruise ship off Japan have tested positive for the virus, the government said on February 7, as thousands of passengers and crew face a two-week quarantine. AFP
At least 61 people on board a cruise ship off Japan have tested positive for the virus, the government said on February 7, as thousands of passengers and crew face a two-week quarantine. AFP

Mr Ryan called out a stigma being attached to the virus over reports of Asians being shunned in the West.

"The unnecessary, unhelpful profiling of individuals based on ethnicity is utterly and completely unacceptable and it needs to stop," he said.

The comments came after a cruise line operator took the extraordinary step of banning citizens of China from travelling on its ships, regardless of when they last visited the country

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd issued a statement on Friday saying: "Any guest or crewmen travelling from, to, or through mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau less than 15 days prior to their sailing will be unable to board any of our ships."

But it did not stop there. It also said: "Any guests holding a Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passport, regardless of when they were there last, will not be allowed to board our ships."

China has complained bitterly about bans and measures that go against WHO recommendations and accused governments and companies that take such actions of fear mongering.

Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China, in Hong Kong and the Philippines, but how deadly and contagious the virus is remains unclear, prompting countries to quarantine hundreds of people and cut travel links with China.

About two dozen sick passengers aboard a Royal Caribbean ship that arrived off New Jersey in the United States were screened for the coronavirus, with four sent to a local hospital out of "an abundance of caution," the local mayor said.

There were 41 new cases among about 3,700 people quarantined in a cruise ship off Japan, taking the total to 61, while Chinese-ruled Hong Kong quarantined for a third day a cruise ship with 3,600 on board.

"A cruise ship is a very particular environment in which you can have higher levels of transmission even with a virus that isn't very efficient at transmission," Mr Ryan said.

Updated: February 8, 2020 05:17 AM

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