By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday urged all health ministers to improve data-sharing on coronavirus immediately and said he would send a team of international experts to work with Chinese counterparts.

The U.N. agency was sending masks, gloves, respirators and nearly 18,000 isolation gowns from its warehouses to some two dozen countries that need support, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told its Executive Board.

So far 22 nations have reported trade or travel-related measures linked to the coronavirus, which Tedros said should be “short in duration, proportionate to public health risks” and reviewed regularly.

“Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma with little public health benefit,” he said.

Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, told the WHO Executive Board that some restrictions went against the U.N. agency’s advice. He cited prohibitions on entry of foreigners who have visited China in the past 14 days, suspension of visa issuance and cancellation of flights.

“Do not engage in over-reaction,” Chen said. “You should follow WHO suggestions and refrain from restrictions on international travel or trade, stay clear of discriminatory actions and stigmatization.”

There have been 20,471 confirmed cases of coronavirus in China, with 176 cases in 24 other countries, and one death, in the Philippines, according to the WHO’s latest figures.

“This is still and foremost an emergency for China,” Tedros said, noting that 99% of cases are in China and 97% of deaths are in Hubei province, including the epicenter of Wuhan city.

Hong Kong reported its first coronavirus death on Tuesday, the second outside mainland China from a fast-spreading outbreak that has killed 427 people and threatened the global economy.

So far 27 cases of person-to-person spread of the virus have been documented in nine countries outside of China, WHO officials said.

The overall public health cost of the response from February to April is estimated at $675 million, which does not include the social or economic consequences of the outbreak, said Scott Pendergast, WHO director of strategic planning and partnerships.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones and Philippa Fletcher)

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