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Coronavirus Not Global Health Emergency, WHO Panel Says

The coronavirus that has killed 45 people, mostly in Saudi Arabia, doesn’t pose a global health emergency, a World Health Organization advisory committee said.

The WHO’s emergency committee, comprising public health experts from outside the United Nations agency, decided unanimously yesterday that Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, doesn’t meet the conditions to be classified a public health emergency of international concern, the WHO said in a statement.

The 15-member committee, including Saudi Arabia’s deputy health minister Ziad Memish and officials from six other predominantly Muslim countries, met via teleconference for the second time to assess the threat posed by the virus, especially as millions of visitors prepare to visit the kingdom for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

“They’re not saying this is not important, they’re not saying let’s just now move onto other things,” Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and environment, said yesterday at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva after the panel’s decision. “Declarations and events have to be proportional to each other. Otherwise you begin to lose credibility.”

The previously unknown virus has infected at least 82 people and killed 45 since September, according to the WHO. Saudi Arabia’s health ministry reported two more cases yesterday that aren’t included in the WHO’s total.

Global Concern

While most cases have been detected in the kingdom, infections in the U.K., France, Germany and Italy have sparked concern of a global outbreak like the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. Scientists still don’t know where the new virus came from or how it’s spreading.

“There are a number of hypotheses, there are a number of possibilities, but we’re still unable to say it’s this animal species or that animal species which is the reservoir,” Fukuda said.

The WHO plans to offer guidelines for people planning to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj in the next few days, but doesn’t plan to recommend any restrictions on travel, he said.

Millions of visitors are expected in Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in October. The Saudi government last month asked visitors to postpone traveling to the country for Hajj, citing construction at the city’s Grand Mosque, according to Arab News.

While the new virus is related to the one that started the SARS outbreak a decade ago, it’s less transmissible and probably won’t cause a global pandemic, researchers from France’s Pasteur Institute wrote in The Lancet journal earlier this month.

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