The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak of coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern.” 

People sit wearing face masks in front a red wall in a subway station.
Passengers of the MTR wear face masks following reports of the Wuhan Coronavirus appearing in Hong Kong © Katherine Cheng / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

The new respiratory disease, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has spread rapidly through the region and around the world, has now been deemed a global emergency by the United Nations agency. 

An emergency meeting was held on Thursday, 30 January. According to a statement from WHO, China's Ministry of Health noted that “there are now 7711 confirmed and 12167 suspected cases throughout the country. Of the confirmed cases, 1370 are severe and 170 people have died. 124 people have recovered and been discharged from hospital."

The emergency committee noted that it believes “it is still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk.” 

There have previously been five public health emergencies of international concern: H1N1 – or “swine flu” in 2009, polio in 2014, Ebola in West Africa in 2014, Zika in 2016, and Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019. The designation was established after the SARS outbreak in 2005. 

Many Chinese cities are on lockdown and international governments – including the US State Department and the UK’s Foreign Office – have issued warnings against all but essential travel to the country. Cases have been reported in Japan, Thailand, Korea, the United States, Canada, Germany, France – with more certain to come. Citizens from around the world are being evacuated from Wuhan by their governments, with the expectation they will remain in quarantine when they arrive in their home countries.  Many airports around the world are running additional passenger screenings in an effort to stop the transmission of the virus through travel. Airlines have cancelled hundreds of flights in and out of China. 

Read more:

What travellers need to know about the coronavirus as governments warn against travel to China

New warnings against "all but essential travel" to China - but what does that really mean?

Explore related stories