Washington — As international airlines have canceled flights to China amid fear over the coronavirus, Africa’s largest air carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, has refused to do so.
Despite mounting pressure, Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said there is no proof that canceling flights would help contain the virus. He stressed the need for screening and cooperation with Chinese authorities.
“We should not isolate China. We should not marginalize Chinese passengers. What we should do is screen passengers in accordance with the WHO guidelines,” he told the Ethiopian publication, The Reporter.
As of the beginning of the week, Ethiopian officials had screened 47,167 passengers for temperature, including 1,607 who had traveled from the region. A handful have exhibited symptoms and have been quarantined. The airline offers 35 weekly flights to five destinations in China.
Tewolde noted that the WHO has not recommended canceling flights and pointed out that cancellations would not preclude the airline from transporting people who may have been in the affected region.
“WHO clearly stated that suspending flights to China would not end the coronavirus outbreak, as victims of the virus are located in other countries,” Tewolde said. ‘‘If we stop flying to China we can still bring passengers from Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and that originated from China.”
Other African air carriers including Kenya Air, RwandAir and Air Tanzania have suspended flights to China as have other carriers including British Airways, Turkish Air, Delta Airlines and American Airlines.
The virus, which can cause a pneumonia-like illness, has killed more than 1,300 people in China since the outbreak began in December.
Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and president and chief executive officer of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of the global nonprofit organization Vital Strategies, said many airlines are simply responding to a drop in demand for the flights.
“They didn't have any passengers, so canceling flights was probably more of an economic decision than an epidemiologic decision,” he told VOA. “But in terms of travel, we do think it's sensible to avoid travel to areas where this is spreading widely.”
Frieden said as the days go by, researchers are learning more about the virus and how best to control it. He said it may spread widely, but it may not cause serious illness in many cases. A WHO study that looked at 17,000 cases found that 82 percent were mild, with most not requiring medical attention.
“There are lots of people with very mild infections that for perhaps the vast majority of people this is like a common cold, but that for some people, older people with underlying conditions, this could be severe,” Frieden said.
The key, said Frieden, is to keep collecting data. “The next few days are going to be very revealing,” he said. “We're going to understand both whether it can be contained and a little more about the range of illness.”
Carol Pearson contributed to this report.