WHO declares coronavirus a public health emergency, but doesn’t urge travel ban

The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the spreading novel coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern but said it was not recommending any restrictions on international travel or trade.

During a press briefing in Geneva, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, said “there is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel or trade.” He called on all countries to make decisions regarding restrictions that are evidence based.

“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” he said, adding that the WHO Emergency Committee’s greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems that are not prepared to deal with it.

Ghebreyesus praised China’s handling of the outbreak and said the organization opposes any travel restrictions leveled against China.

Ghebreyesus pointed out that a number of international airlines that have reduced or suspended service to China did so because of a drop in demand rather than because of the virus itself.

United is among the carriers that have reduced service because of falling demand. The airline said Thursday it is reducing from 12 to four its daily departures from the U.S. to China, effective Feb. 9 through March 28. United had announced more limited reductions earlier in the week.

United’s reductions involve Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. It said there are no planned reductions at this time for service to Chengdu.

Numerous other airlines have announced service reductions or suspensions in the past few days. Others, like Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, told FreightWaves they were continuing to operate flights as normal but have relaxed restrictions on passengers making changes to travel plans.

The WHO says there 7,818 confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world, with nearly all of them in China, where 170 people have died. Outside China, a total of 82 cases have been reported in 18 countries.