China first informed the World Health Organisation about cases of the new virus in late last month. To date, China has reported more than 7,800 cases including 170 deaths. Eighteen other countries have since reported cases.

By Ian Horswill

Posted on January 31, 2020

The World Health Organisation, a United Nations agency, has finally declared the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, the seven most populous city in China, that has spread to 18 countries as a global emergency.

The World Health Organisation defines an international emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response.

China first informed the World Health Organisation about cases of the new virus in late last month. To date, China has reported more than 7,800 cases including 213 deaths. Eighteen other countries have since reported cases, as scientists try to understand how exactly the virus is spreading and how severe it is.


“The main reason for this declaration is not what is happening in China but what is happening in other countries,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, AP News reported.

“This declaration is not a vote of non-confidence in China,” he said. “On the contrary, WHO continues to have the confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”

The World Health Organisation, which a week before said it was “too early” to declare a global emergency, said there had been 98 cases in 18 countries outside of China, but no-one has died.

Most cases have emerged in people who have travelled from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. However, there have been eight cases of human-to-human infection in Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the US.

Russia announced it was closing its 2,600-mile border with China, joining Mongolia and North Korea in barring crossings to guard against a new viral outbreak. It had been de facto closed because of the Lunar New Year holiday, but Russian authorities said the closure would be extended until March 1.

Meanwhile, the US and South Korea confirmed their first cases of person-to-person spread of the virus. A man in the US, who is married to a 60-year-old Chicago woman, caught the virus after she returned from a trip to Wuhan. A 56-year-old South Korean man who had contact with a patient who was diagnosed with coronavirus earlier also caught the virus.

In Japan, a man in his 60s caught coronavirus after working as a bus driver for two tour groups from Wuhan. In Germany, a man in his 30s caught the virus after a Chinese colleague from Wuhan visited his office for a business meeting. Three other workers at the same factory later became infected. The woman had shown no symptoms of the virus until her flight back to China.

“That’s the kind of transmission chain that we don’t want to see,” said Marion Koopmans, an infectious diseases specialist at Erasmus University Medical Centre in the Netherlands and a member of the World Health Organisation.

The World Health Organisation has previously declared five global public health emergencies:

Ebola, 2014 and 2019: The deadly disease has twice been declared a public health emergency. The first one lasted from August 2014 to March 2016 as almost 30,000 people were infected and more than 11,000 died in West Africa. The WHO cited “the virulence of the virus, the intensive community and health facility transmission patterns, and the weak health systems” in affected countries. A second emergency was declared last year as an outbreak spread in DR Congo.

Zika, 2016: The WHO declared Zika a public health emergency in 2016 after the disease spread rapidly through the Americas. Although for many Zika symptoms are mild, it can be dangerous for pregnant women and the emergency was called to spur urgent research.

Polio, 2014: Although closer than ever to eradication in 2012, polio numbers rose in 2013. An emergency was declared due to fears the global fight against its eradication could face a major setback.

Swine flu, 2009: The H1N1 virus spread across the world in 2009, killing more than 200,000 people, and a public health emergency was called to ensure the world was carefully monitoring its spread and able to respond, including with vaccines.