WHO working on recommendations for resuming flights to China

February 5, 2020 - 8:34 AM
Briand, Director of global infectious hazard preparedness at the WHO attends a news conference on the new coronavirus outbreak in Geneva
Sylvie Briand, Director of global infectious hazard preparedness at the World Health Organization (WHO) attends a news conference on the new coronavirus outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland February 4, 2020. (Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

GENEVA — The World Health Organization will work with travel and tourism industry representatives on Wednesday to draw up further recommendations to protect their crews so they can resume flights to China, a senior WHO official said.

Sylvie Briand, WHO director of global infectious hazard preparedness, said people infected with the coronavirus should wear masks, but that for other people without signs of the disease, “the masks will not necessarily protect them 100%”.

Frequent hand-washing and other hygiene measures were needed, as the virus is spread by close contact and can also remain on surfaces, she said.

She dismissed earlier medical studies of some people having transmitted the disease without showing signs, saying they actually had “minor symptoms” that went undetected.

The outbreak, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and has spread within the country and to 23 other countries, does not constitute a pandemic, but an epidemic with “multiple foci”, she said.

So far 19 countries had formally notified the U.N. agency of measures or restrictions taken in connection with the outbreak and the WHO was seeking clarifications on their justifications, Briand said.

Dozens of airlines have suspended flights.

The WHO, in declaring an international emergency last week, called on countries not to impose unnecessary trade or travel restrictions on China.

A WHO spokesman told Reuters a teleconference with tourism and travel industry representatives was set for Wednesday.

“Crews for those companies are really scared of being infected, because when they are in a flight they have very close contact with passengers, so they feel really at risk,” Briand told a Geneva news conference.

“That is why we need to define with those companies specific recommendations so their staff feel secure, feel protected as well as well so that they can resume flying to China,” she said.

Briand, noting that these were “legitimate concerns”, added: “I cannot guarantee they will resume the flights.”

WHO was working with countries and also hoped for a “realignment” among countries’ policies regarding evacuations of their nationals from China, she said.

Coronavirus has remained “quite a stable virus”, she said.

Chinese authorities had earlier reported a record daily jump in deaths of 64 to 425.

People with severe infections or who die are mainly people with underlying conditions, such as cancer, diabetes or suppressed immune systems, or the elderly, Briand said.

Asked why there have only between one death recorded abroad so far, in the Philippines, among some 153 cases, she said people travelling were probably not old with chronic diseases, but younger people and those in good health.

Hong Kong reported its first death from the newly identified coronavirus on Tuesday, the second outside mainland China.—Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Heavens and Alex Richardson and Philippa Fletcher