Coronavirus outbreak is 'public health emergency of international concern,' WHO declares

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that the new coronavirus outbreak is a public health emergency of international concern, officials announced today (Jan. 30).

The news comes as the case count and death toll from the virus have soared in recent days. As of Thursday (Jan. 30), there were 7,736 cases and 170 deaths in China, as well as 98 cases in 18 other countries, the WHO said.

Although the number of cases outside of China is relatively small compared with the number in China at this time, officials stressed that efforts are needed to stop the spread of the virus further.

"The only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, said in a news conference Thursday. "We are all in this together."

Today's announcement is a reversal of WHO's decision last week not to declare a public health emergency of international concern.

The main reason for the declaration is concern that the virus could spread to countries with weaker health systems. "We don't know what sort of damage the virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system," Ghebreyesus said.

As for the outbreak in China itself, Ghebreyesus emphasized that "WHO continues to have the confidence in China's capacity to control the outbreak" there.

The declaration can help WHO better coordinate an international response to the outbreak, particularly in countries that are less prepared for the virus, according to CNN.

Ghebreyesus stressed that, at this time, WHO is not recommending any trade or travel restrictions in response to the outbreak.

WHO has declared such an emergency just five times before: in 2009 for the "swine flu" pandemic, in 2014 for a polio outbreak, in 2014 for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, in 2016 for the Zika outbreak and in 2019 for the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to The New York Times. The organization first established the declaration in 2005, after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

Originally published on Live Science. 

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.