The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a new "grave" warning about the coronavirus, as authorities in Hong Kong evacuate 100 people from an apartment block amid fears the virus could spread through drainage pipes.
"With 99 per cent of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world," WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said as he opened the latest conference on the virus in Geneva, Switzerland, reports news.com.au.
"What matters most is stopping the outbreak and saving lives. With your support, that's what we can do together," Dr Tedros said.
Some 400 scientists will review how the virus is transmitted and possible vaccines at the two-day forum.
The virus, first identified in China on December 31, has killed more than 1,000 people, infected over 42,000 and reached some 25 countries.
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It is thought to have originated in bats and reached humans via another animal such as snakes or pangolins.
There is no specific treatment or vaccine against the disease, which can cause respiratory failure. Now several companies and institutes in Australia, China, France, Germany and the United States are racing to develop a vaccine – a process that normally takes years.
HONG KONG APARTMENT BLOCK RESIDENTS EVACUATED
The conference comes as more than 100 people were evacuated from a Hong Kong housing block on Tuesday, after four residents in two different apartments tested positive for the 2019-nCoV.
Locals were forced to leave in the early hours as health officials in masks and white overalls scrambled to work out whether the virus had spread through the 35-storey complex that houses some 3000 people.
Hong Kong is on high alert for any potential "super-spreader" events, especially in the towering housing blocks that make the city one of the world's most densely populated places.
During the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed 299 people in Hong Kong, 42 deaths came from just one housing block where about 300 people were infected.
In that outbreak, the virus was found to have spread through faulty drainage pipes.
Officials said Tuesday's relocation of residents in Tsing Yi district was a precautionary measure after three members of the same family contracted the virus.
The family lived 10 floors directly below another man who had already been diagnosed as a carrier.
"We are not sure what was the exact route of transmission," Wong Ka-hing, from the Centre for Health Protection, told reporters.
"It could still be through the usual method of droplets or contact."
Nonetheless the occupants of 35 flats connected to the same drainage system were moved out.
Health secretary Sophia Chan said four residents who showed flu-like symptoms were taken to a hospital isolation ward but later tested negative for the virus. The others were taken to quarantine camps.
CHINESE OFFICIALS 'REMOVED'
Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first public appearance in almost two weeks on Monday, as analysts said the virus could lead to his own "Chernobyl moment".
Xi has largely kept out of the public eye since the outbreak was first reported at a seafood market in Wuhan, in China's Hubei province in December.
But as the number of infected continues to rise – both in China and overseas – the government has been under pressure to prove the situation is under control.
Local officials in particular have faced mounting pressure for perceived incompetence – particularly after the death of a Chinese doctor in the provincial capital Wuhan who was punished for raising the alarm about the new virus.
Analysts have also accused them of playing down the extent of the outbreak because they were holding political meetings at the time and wanted to project an image of stability.
On Tuesday, two of the most senior health officials at the epicentre of the virus were sacked, according to state media.
Zhang Jin, the Communist Party boss of the provincial health commission in Hubei, and its director Liu Yingzi were removed from their positions, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Deputy director of China's National Health Commission Wang Hesheng will take over the two roles, said CCTV.
In another sign of personnel changes at ground zero of the outbreak, senior Beijing official Chen Yixin has been sent to Wuhan to guide epidemic control work.
Chen is secretary-general of the commission, the Communist Party's top law enforcement body.