The World Health Organization on Thursday declared Wuhan coronavirus a "public health emergency of international concern" as more countries report infected cases, and the U.S. saw its first person-to-person transfer of the virus.
At a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the speed at which the virus was spreading in countries outside of China — where the virus first emerged last month — and the concern for the threat it posed to nations with weaker healthcare infrastructures was the biggest reason for the designation.
There have been 98 cases in 18 countries outside of China since the beginning of the outbreak, with eight cases of human-to-human transmission, according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries," Tedros said. "Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, which are ill-prepared to deal with it."
Tedros praised the Chinese government's response to the outbreak, saying it was likely more cases outside of the country would have materialized if China had not quickly detected and isolated the virus.
"In many ways, China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response," Tedros said. "It's not an exaggeration."
There have been 7,834 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus since December 2019, with 99% of all reported cases coming from China. All 170 deaths that have been reported globally have been in China.
This is the sixth time the WHO has declared a global health emergency since the agency established the designation in 2005 following the 2003 SARS outbreak. The last WHO global health emergency occurred in 2019 in response to the Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The declaration can help mobilize resources more quickly to contain infectious disease outbreaks. Under the designation, 196 countries have agreed to provide financial support to prevent spread of the virus domestically and internationally. Such efforts can include countries providing health services at all international airports and border crossings to limit the risk of an outbreak spread.
The declaration comes on the same day the CDC confirmed the first spread of the virus between two people in the United States. Health officials said the latest patient, from Chicago, had no history of travel to Wuhan but his wife had been diagnosed with the virus on Jan. 21.
"Given what we've seen in China and other countries with the novel coronavirus, CDC experts have expected some person-to-person spread in the U.S.," said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield in a released statement on Thursday. "We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, we still believe the immediate risk to the American public is low."