The new coronavirus has been declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization, as the outbreak continues to spread outside China.
“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.
The concern is that it could spread to countries with weaker health systems.
The death toll now stands at 170 people in China.
The WHO said there had been 98 cases in 18 countries outside of the country, but no deaths.
Most cases have emerged in people who have travelled from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.
However, there have been eight cases of human-to-human infection – in Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the United States.
Dr Tedros, speaking at the press conference in Geneva, described the virus as an “unprecedented outbreak” that has been met with an “unprecedented response”.
He praised the “extraordinary measures” Chinese authorities had taken to prevent it from spreading.
“Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China,” he added.
BBC Health correspondent James Gallagher said the WHO will now be able to support lower and middle income countries, helping them strengthen their disease surveillance and prepare them for possible cases.
How unusual is this declaration?
The WHO declares a Public Health Emergency of International Concern when there is “an extraordinary event which is determined … to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease”.
It has previously declared five global public health emergencies:
How is China handling the outbreak?
Although questions have been raised about transparency, the WHO has praised China’s handling of the outbreak. President Xi Jinping has vowed to defeat what he called a “devil” virus.
The central province of Hubei, where nearly all deaths have occurred, is in a state of lockdown. The province of 60 million people is home to Wuhan, the heart of the outbreak.
The city has effectively been sealed off and China has put numerous transport restrictions in place to curb the spread of the virus.
People who have been in Hubei are also being told by their employers to work from home until it is considered safe for them to return.
The virus is affecting China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, with a growing number of countries advising their citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to the country.
Several international airlines have stopped or scaled back their routes to China and companies like Google, Ikea, Starbucks and Tesla have closed their shops or stopped operations.
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