Canadian public health veteran leading WHO coronavirus team to Beijing to investigate epidemic


A World Health Organization (WHO) team of international experts led by a Canadian epidemiologist is on its way to Beijing to investigate China’s coronavirus it was announced Sunday, the same day China raised the death toll from its outbreak to 811, surpassing the number killed globally by the SARS epidemic.

“I’ve just been at the airport seeing off members of an advance team for the @WHO-led #2019nCoV international expert mission to #China, led by Dr Bruce Aylward, veteran of past public health emergencies,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a tweet from Geneva Sunday.

Aylward is a Canadian epidemiologist and emergencies expert.

Tedros travelled to Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping and Chinese ministers in late January to receive approval for the international mission.

But it took nearly two weeks to get the government’s green light on the team’s composition, which was not announced, other than to say Aylward was heading it.

Many of China’s usually teeming cities have almost become ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered virtual lockdowns, cancelled flights, closed factories and shut schools.

Although authorities have been making plans for millions of people to return to work after the extended Lunar New Year break, a large number of workplaces and schools were to remain closed on Monday and many white-collar employees were to work from home.

China’s cabinet said on Sunday it would co-ordinate with transport authorities to ensure the smooth return to work of employees in such key industries as food and medicines.

The State Council’s special coronavirus group also said workers should return in “batches,” rather than all at once, in order to reduce infection risks.

China’s ambassador to Britain described the newly identified virus as “the enemy of mankind” in an interview with BBC television on Sunday, but added it “is controllable, is preventable, is curable.”

“At this moment is very difficult to predict when we are going to have an inflection point,” Liu Xiaoming said. “We certainly hope it will come soon, but the isolation and quarantine measures have been very effective.”

China’s National Health Commission recorded another 89 deaths on Saturday, pushing the total well above the 774 who died from SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2002/2003.

Total confirmed coronavirus cases in China stood at 37,198, commission data showed. New infections recorded the first drop since Feb. 1, falling back below 3,000 to 2,656 cases. Of those, 2,147 cases were in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

The virus has also spread to at least 27 countries and regions, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China — both of Chinese nationals.

French health authorities said Sunday that a British man who contracted the new coronavirus while attending a conference in Singapore may have led to seven other people catching the disease when he stopped off at a chalet in a French mountain village on his way home.

The man, Britain’s third case of the virus, stayed for four days in the chalet in Les Contamines-Montjoie late last month, under the same roof as a group of British holidaymakers as well as a British family who lived in the village.

Five people from that group in the Alpine ski resort, including a child, contracted the coronavirus as a result, French officials said this weekend.

Spanish authorities said on Sunday that a British man had tested positive in Mallorca after coming into contact with an infected person in France.

Seven cases of novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Canada. An update from the Public Health Agency of Canada said four cases are in British Columbia and three are in Ontario.

As millions of Chinese prepared to go back to work Sunday, the public dismay and mistrust of official numbers was evident on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

“What’s even more frustrating is that these are only the ‘official’ data,” said one user.

Gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. said on Sunday it had asked staff to continue working from home until Feb. 21.

Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, will keep schools shut until March 1, the People’s Daily newspaper said. Several provinces have shut schools until the end of February.

The local government in the southern manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, meanwhile, denied a report in the Nikkei business daily that it had blocked a plan by Apple Inc. supplier Foxconn Technology Co. Ltd. to resume production in China from Monday. The company would restart once inspections were completed, it said.

Among the latest deaths, 81 were in Hubei.

An American hospitalized in the provincial capital Wuhan, where the outbreak began, became the first confirmed non-Chinese victim. The Washington Post identified him as Hong Ling, a 53-year old geneticist who studied rare diseases at Berkeley.

Meanwhile, Princess Cruises, operator of the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan, said a further six people had tested positive, bringing the total cases aboard to 70, including seven Canadians. 

By Winni Zhou and Dominique Patton


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