The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s emergency committee has declared an international public health emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Coronavirus has killed 170 people and spread to 18 countries
  • Thousands of people could become infected with coronavirus in Ireland, no recorded cases yet.
  • Irish people evacuating China will be quarantined when they return to EU – Coveney

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

The virus which has so far killed 170 people, infected more than 6,000 and is spreading across China and into other countries and there are concerns it could reach Ireland.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill during the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. The number of cases has jumped to 7,711, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with Sars.

The death toll, which rose to 170 on Thursday morning, is lower than the 348 people who died in China from Sars.

Speaking at the WHO press conference, Mr Adhanom said: “Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak, and which has been met by an unprecedented response.

“As I have said repeatedly since my return from Beijing, the Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak, despite the severe social and economic impact those measures are having on the Chinese people.

“We would have seen many more cases outside China by now – and probably deaths – if it were not for the government’s efforts, and the progress they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world.”

The WHO director-general added: “I also offer my profound respect and thanks to the thousands of brave health professionals and all frontline responders, who in the midst of the Spring Festival, are working 24/7 to treat the sick, save lives and bring this outbreak under control.

“There are now 98 cases in 18 countries outside China, including eight cases of human-to-human transmission in four countries: Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the US.

“So far we have not seen any deaths outside China, for which we must all be grateful. Although these numbers are still relatively small compared to the number of cases in China, we must all act together now to limit further spread.

“The vast majority of cases outside China have a travel history to Wuhan, or contact with someone with a travel history to Wuhan. We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.

“For all of these reasons, I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of coronavirus.”

In Ireland, there is said to be a “moderate” risk of a coronavirus outbreak with health experts saying they are prepared to deal with any cases.

While there have been no confirmed cases of the virus, a number of tests have been carried out on concerned patients.

Speaking at a HSE briefing in Dublin, Dr John Cuddihy, director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), advised any members of the public who have developed symptoms and have travelled to the centre of the coronavirus outbreak to ring their GP.

“If somebody has travelled to Wuhan in the Hubei province and you become unwell, especially with respiratory symptoms, temperature, cough, breathing difficulties, within 14 days of returning, then we’re emphasising that person should phone their GP and mention relevant concerns,” Dr Cuddihy said.

“Currently there are no cases of coronavirus in Ireland, and therefore you’re extremely unlikely to catch a virus from somebody in Ireland.

“If there were to be a case in Ireland in the future then healthcare professionals will contact anyone who’s been in close contact with the infected case and advise them.

“In caring for that patient, adherence to the infection prevention control and guidance that we have disseminated would make it very unlikely that the case would transmit and cause another case.”

The HSE has also advised Irish citizens to avoid travelling to the Hubei province unless it is essential.

The group of health experts were asked about any potential cases in Ireland after it was reported on Thursday that a High Court Judge was told by a doctor that a Dublin hospital may have a suspected case.

Dr Kevin Kelleher, assistant national director of Public Health and Child Health, said he had “no idea” about the case.

Joe Ryan, national director of national services, said that management has been developing the plans to respond to the virus.

A HSE multidisciplinary team has been working on what is needed to deal with the virus since early January.

Mr Ryan said: “Our current priorities are that the HSE emergency management protocols are in place alongside our public health emergency plans, and we’re using these to manage the situation.”

The heath experts said that, if they are seriously concerned about a patient’s safety, the patient can be put into isolation.

Dr Cuddihy said that, while there is a moderate chance of a case being found in Ireland, they will minimise the chance of the spread of the disease.

Dr Kelleher added: “We are putting a massive amount of effort into dealing with any really quite low degree of possibility of a case to ensure that we don’t miss anything.”

Meanwhile, Samuel McConkey, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at the RCSI, said that we need to be prepared in case of an outbreak of the virus here.

“We need to start preparing for very large numbers of people coming to GP practices and emergency rooms with signs of flu, some of whom will have the traditional flu but some of whom will have this new coronavirus potentially.

“It hasn’t yet been detected in Ireland but it is quite possible that over the next thee, four, six or eight weeks that we might be seeing thousands of people coming to emergency rooms with that virus.

“From the data in China, about 2 per cent may die, about 25pc of those people will need oxygen and hospital care to stay alive,” he said on RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland today.

“We’re a very, very wealthy country. To put this in context the Chinese have just given €8 billion to build two big hospitals in Wuhan to deal with isolated cases – that’s four children’s hospitals they’re proposing to build in two weeks and they probably will.

“We could do that if we needed to, we have the technical ability to respond to this if it becomes an issue of extensional survival of 20,000 people in Ireland potentially.

“So I think we’re well organised, we’ve good technology, good diagnostics, very well-trained staff so I think we could survive it.”

He also gave an insight into how our health system can prepare for potential coronavirus patients.

Professor McConkey said: “Planning, strengthening our diagnostic capacity, nobody knew this virus existed before December, so we have to develop and test new diagnostic tests.

“Have them widely available so if someone does come to the emergency room, you can rapidly find out do they have it or not, just as we’ve done with flu.

“Fortunately, some of the same technology platforms that we’ve been using for influenza can be transferred to work for this new coronavirus.

“Secondly, teaching staff about personal protective equipment – gloves, gowns, masks – it’s not all that exciting but it turns out how to take it off correctly is really important to protect staff and other patients.

“The deaths from Ebola in West Africa we found were from people contaminating their skin, eyes, mouth accidentally by touching the outer surface of their gowns and masks.”

This comes as Tanaiste Simon Coveney confirmed that less than a dozen Irish citizens who have sought immediate evacuation from China because of the coronavirus epidemic will have to remain in quarantine in the EU member state they fly back to.

Ireland has sought seats on a special aircraft organised by the French Government for evacuations from the Wuhan region starting from Friday – and Mr Coveney insisted that Ireland is now doing everything possible to prepare for the highly contagious virus.

Almost 140 people have died from the new variant of Coronavirus which has prompted an unprecedented lockdown across China to prevent its spread.

Mr Coveney said the priority is to protect Ireland from the virus and to ensure it never arrives here – while aiding Irish citizens in China and complying with EU health guidelines.

“There are a small number of Irish citizens who are living in the region affected in China,” he said.

“We have reached out to them in the last few days through the (Irish) Embassy in Beijing.

“It is a small number but it is still important. Our consular services want to make sure that Irish citizens in the affected area and city are given support and options.

“A small number of those Irish citizens have indicated they want to leave and to be assisted in doing that.

“We have set about doing that with our EU partners.

“The reason that France has been mentioned is that France happens to be sending a plane into the city (Wuhan) to take out French citizens.

“The UK may be doing the same for British citizens. There are not commercial flights operating in and out.

“This involves essentially a special arrangement whereby EU countries may be sending specific flights to bring EU citizens out and that is being co-ordinated at an EU level.”

More than 600 EU citizens are in the Wuhan region hardest hit by the virus.

“We have spoken to our French colleagues and we are hopeful and confident that we can secure a seat on planes that would take Irish citizens who want to leave out – then, of course, when they arrive back in Europe they will have to go through the appropriate health measures.

“This will ensure that they are not carrying any infection and that their healthcare needs are being looked after as they should be.

“We are working on that process and I am confident that we can support any Irish citizen anywhere in China but particularly in the region concerned. We can support them if they want to leave and we can find a way of getting them out working with other EU countries who are more than happy to help in that regard.”

A number of Irish citizens have opted to remain on in China – but some have sought immediate evacuation.

“The number who have requested to leave is in the low single figures – I think it is better that I don’t give exact figures. It is certainly not huge numbers.

“They are obviously Irish citizens and will get the help of the Irish State.”

Mr Coveney said the self-isolation and quarantine issue was an important part of EU health regulations and the policy towards dealing with the virus.

“Nothing is finalised or confirmed yet. We are working with France and other EU countries to ensure that if Irish citizens that are living in the region concerned want to leave, we will help them to leave.

“France happens to be sending a plane tomorrow and we are talking to France about securing seats on that plane.

“I think we should be able to do that – but we also need to be sure that if people come back to the EU that when they land they are treated in a way that is appropriate to ensure that no infection is spread and, of course, that they get any supports they might need.”
This will involve a fortnight of quarantine or self-isolation in the arrival EU member state.

“I do want to emphasise that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any Irish citizen has contracted the virus. But anybody leaving that region and coming to the EU effectively means that process must be managed to contain any potential spread of the virus.”

Mr Coveney insisted that the Government will support Irish healthcare systems to ensure the country is as prepared as possible for any threat posed by the coronavirus.

“We have a chief medical officer and a Department of Health that is very much focused on ensuring that Ireland will be as prepared as we can be should that happen,” he said.

“But I think the important thing is that we do everything we can to make sure that it doesn’t (arrive here).”

“That is why any Irish citizens who will be coming home whether it is via Paris or any other EU city…that process would be managed in a way to ensure they would not be carrying the virus into Ireland.

“The EU is working together on this to make sure we do everything we can to contain any potential risk and I am confident we can do that.”