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World Health Organisation declares coronavirus a global health emergency

He defended the government’s decision to charge those being evacuated $1000 per person to be transported to Christmas Island.

Passengers wear protective masks as they walk in the arrivals area at Beijing Capital Airport.

Passengers wear protective masks as they walk in the arrivals area at Beijing Capital Airport.Credit:Getty Images

“These are the standard arrangements that are put in place for assisted departures,” he said.

Health authorities in Hubei, the Chinese province at the centre of the coronavirus epidemic, say deaths in the region have risen by 42 to 204. The latest Hubei figures take the total death toll for China to at least 212.

There have been a further 1220 cases detected in Hubei by end of January 30, taking the total for the province alone to close to 6000, Hubei’s health commission said.

Almost two days after announcing the unprecedented plan, the government has yet to receive approval from the Chinese government to conduct the evacuation.

The United States and Japan have pulled consular staff and families out of the middle of the crisis zone, which has put more than 40 million people in lockdown across a dozen cities in central China.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, announced on Thursday local time 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.

Twice last week the experts had 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.

It covers temporary recommendations for national health authorities worldwide, which include stepping up their monitoring, preparedness and containment measures.

Although the WHO has no legal authority to sanction countries, it could ask governments to provide scientific justification for any travel or trade restrictions that they impose in the event of an international emergency.

There are nine confirmed cases in Australia – three in Victoria, four in NSW and two in Queensland.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Wednesday morning that updated travel advice on the Smartraveller website now advised Australians to “reconsider your need to travel to China overall”, and “do not travel to Hubei Province”, the epicentre of the virus outbreak.

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On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australians in Wuhan could be evacuated to Christmas Island to be quarantined for 14 days. The evacuation will cost Australians $1000.

About 600 Australians are trapped in the Hubei province, with dual citizens fearing they may not be allowed to leave the country. DFAT on Thursday night told Australians stuck in Hubei province that if they arrived on their Chinese passports, local authorities might prevent them from travelling.

Qantas, the government and Beijing officials spent Thursday discussing how to execute the evacuation plan.

The CSIRO has started growing batches of coronavirus as it races to create a vaccine. The leading science agency’s test will focus on three possible vaccines being developed by other scientists, including work being done by researchers at the University of Queensland.

Earlier this week, scientists at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute grew a sample of the deadly disease in the lab.

Australia is the only country outside China to have grown the virus in a cell culture, putting us at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic.

Eryk Bagshaw, Reuters, staff reporters

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