The Philippines on Thursday confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus that has killed at least 170 people so far in China, as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus’s outbreak a global emergency.
A Chinese woman who arrived in Manila last week tested positive for the coronavirus, Philippine health officials said, while neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia ramped up efforts to evacuate hundreds of their citizens from Wuhan. The Chinese city of 11 million people has been on lockdown since Jan. 23 in an effort to quarantine the epicenter of the virus.
“We were able to detect the first confirmed case [in the Philippines] because of our strong surveillance system, close coordination with World Health Organization and other national agencies,” Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told reporters.
The 38-year-old Chinese woman arrived in the Philippines from Wuhan via Hong Kong on Jan. 21, two days before the Chinese lockdown. She was admitted to a government-run hospital four days after her arrival when she reported experiencing a mild cough, Duque said.
Currently the Chinese woman was showing no signs of symptoms, he said.
Duque said the Philippines had recorded 29 “patients under investigation,” including 18 in metropolitan Manila. Five of the total have been “discharged but are still under strict monitoring,” he said.
On Thursday, more nations reported infections from the new virus – officially called 2019-nCov – as Beijing raised the death toll to 170 so far in mainland China, with thousands infected across the country of 1.4 billion people.
The virus has been detected in more than a dozen countries, including the United States, Canada and India, which also confirmed its first case Thursday in a patient in Kerala, a southwestern coastal state.
Late Thursday in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus upgraded the virus to “a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of novel coronavirus.”
“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 told a news conference. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it."
New case in Malaysia
Malaysia, which earlier reported that 32 people had been placed under close monitoring by health authorities, confirmed its eighth case on Thursday.
“The eighth case is a 49-year-old Chinese citizen who has been admitted to an isolation ward at the Permai Johor Hospital and is reported to be in stable condition,” Noor Hisham Abdullah, the Health Ministry’s director-general, said in a statement.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said authorities were coordinating with Beijing to repatriate 82 Malaysians from Wuhan.
“The government plans to bring all Malaysians in Wuhan home as soon as possible and hope it can be done within the next two or three days,” Saifuddin told reporters Thursday.
Meanwhile in Jakarta, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered the immediate evacuation of Indonesians from Wuhan, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters.
Marsudi said Jokowi gave the order after they met at the Halim Perdana Kusuma Airport in Jakarta.
Indonesian authorities were preparing documents needed to relocate Indonesian citizens scattered in several areas in China’s Hubei province, the most-affected region, to their pickup location for their repatriation, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Officials from the Indonesian Embassy in Beijing are already near the affected area to help facilitate the process,” it said.
There are 243 Indonesians in Hubei Province, 98 of whom live in Wuhan, officials told BenarNews.
Anung Sugihantono, the Indonesian health ministry’s director for disease prevention and control, said returning citizens would be subjected to a quarantine of up to 14 days.
“Those who are under observation will be put in isolation,” Anung told reporters.
Hadi Tjahjanto, the military chief, said that if the evacuation process went well, the Indonesian citizens coming in from Wuhan would be placed at a dormitory in East Jakarta during the quarantine.
“We will also provide security there,” he said.
The Indonesian military had prepared a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and appointed two Boeing commercial planes for the evacuation process, Hadi said, without elaborating.
Thailand, which has 14 confirmed cases of the virus, stepped up protective measures Wednesday by screening its tourist-sector workers, while military medical personnel were tasked with screening arrivals at 10 international airports across the country.
All but one of the coronavirus cases in Thailand were Chinese tourists, and so far there have been no human-to-human transmissions inside the country, officials said.
Between Jan. 3 and Jan. 27, the Buddhist-majority nation, a popular destination among Chinese tourists, recorded more than 25,000 arrivals from Wuhan, according to health ministry figures.
As the country grappled with its confirmed cases – the second-highest number outside China –Thai authorities warned online users that they could face arrests for sharing inaccurate information about the coronavirus.
“You better think a lot more and look for sources of where news comes from,” Thailand's digital economy minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta told AFP, as he confirmed that two people had been charged with violating the Computer Crimes Act, which can carry up to five years in prison.
Buddhipongse said the duo, a man and a woman, had admitted creating “fake news” by posting a misleading video and spreading false information about an alleged coronavirus case.
Elsewhere, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) said that it and the police had detained four people “suspected of spreading false news regarding the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCov) outbreak” on social media.
The four suspects will be investigated under the country’s communications and internet laws, and could face up to a year in prison and/or be fined a maximum of 50,000 ringgit (U.S. $12,200) if convicted, the MCMC said in a statement.
Mark Navales from Cotabato City, Philippines and Nisha David and Ali Nufael in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.