Zweli Mkhize. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Zweli Mkhize. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

SA has activated the emergency operations centre at the National Institutes of Communicable Disease (NICD) and stepped up surveillance for the new respiratory illness that emerged in China earlier in January, but has no immediate plans to impose travel restrictions or repatriate its citizens, health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Friday.

His comments follow the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) declaration on Thursday night that the novel coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCov, is a global health emergency of international concern, after the number of new cases rose more than tenfold during the past week.

By Thursday, 7818 cases and 170 deaths had been confirmed in mainland China, and 82 cases had been confirmed in 18 other countries, according to the latest WHO situation report. On January 23, the WHO was reporting only 571 confirmed cases in China. There have been no suspected or confirmed cases in SA, said Mkhize.

The disease has affected travel and trade around the world, and hammered financial markets.

Mkhize said SA was following the WHO’s recommendation that there be no restrictions on trade and travel, but was constantly evaluating the situation. There was no evidence to support repatriating  SA citizens in China at present, he said.

“We are very confident in China’s capacity to manage the epidemic and that our citizens in China are in good hands,” he said. “We will continue to monitor the situation on a day-by-day basis and will respond as we see appropriate at that time,” he said.

Timelapse video shot at Melbourne's Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity shows a sample of the coronavirus successfully growing in the laboratory. It will provide expert international laboratories with crucial information to help combat the virus. The virus has so far killed at least 117 people and infected over 7000 people worldwide. Subscribe to MultimediaLIVE here: Comment Moderation Policy:

The government was aware of 165 SA students and 54 teachers in the city of Wuhan, which is at the centre of the outbreak, and about 3,000 SA students in China as a whole, he said.

The WHO’s declaration is the sixth in the past decade — recent examples include Ebola and the Zika virus — and gives fresh impetus to its efforts to get governments to ramp up their response to the coronavirus. It gives the WHO power to make recommendations such as travel advisories and review the measures implemented in affected countries, but its recommendations are not legally binding.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom said he had confidence in China’s capacity to manage the outbreak and praised its efforts so far.  

“We would have seen many more cases outside China — and probably deaths — by now if were not for their efforts,” he said at a media conference in Geneva on Thursday night.

The declaration was no reflection of what was happening in China, but more due to concern about other countries, he said.

“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to other countries with weaker health systems, which are ill-prepared to deal with it,” he said.

The WHO was not recommending restrictions on trade and travel, he said.

“We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent,” he said.

“This is the time for facts, not fear,” he said.

In a statement issued shortly after its press conference, the WHO said it was still possible to stop the virus spreading, provided countries put in place strong measures to detect the disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote “social distancing” measures appropriate to the risk.

But it warned that further cases could appear in any country, and all nations should be prepared. Countries are legally required to share information with the WHO under international health regulations.

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