Passengers wear protective masks in the arrivals area at Beijing Capital Airport on January 30, 2020.
Photo: Kevin Frayer (Getty Images)

The World Health Organization on Thursday declared an international public health emergency over the deadly new coronavirus that has hit China hard. The announcement comes as nearly a hundred cases have been spotted in countries outside of China, including the first case of human-to-human transmission in the U.S., also reported on Thursday.

The WHO’s decision on the outbreak of virus, known as 2019-nCoV, was made following a lengthy discussion by experts assembled by the agency. Last week, the same committee deliberated for two days about whether to call for a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), as it’s officially known, but declined to do so. While China has reported a large surge of cases since then—over 7,700 cases and 170 deaths as of early January 30—the move to now call for an international emergency was motivated by the worsening situation outside of China, according to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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As of Thursday, there have been 98 cases reported outside of mainland China in at least 18 countries, but no deaths outside of China.

“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 at the press conference announcing the PHEIC today. “We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.”

The declaration allows the WHO and its partners more standing to recommend emergency measures to countries, according to the WHO, which can include international travel restrictions.

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While most cases outside China have involved people traveling from the Wuhan region of China (hence the unofficial use of Wuhan virus to refer to 2019-nCov), at least eight cases have been spread through close contact. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first local case of the virus, involving a Chicago resident who contracted it from his wife who had recently returned from Wuhan. According to the CDC, the Chicago man is now the sixth case of Wuhan virus in the U.S. and the second in Illinois.

California, Washington, and Arizona have seen one or two cases as well. While the local spread of 2019-nCoV is obviously not good news, CDC officials still maintain that the U.S. public at large should not be overly worried.

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“We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, our assessment remains that the immediate risk to the American public is low,” CDC chief Robert Redfield said at a media conference on Thursday.

Elsewhere, however, the potential threat of Wuhan is escalating. On Thursday, a cruise ship owned by Costa Cruises containing over 7,000 passengers and crew was quarantined off the coast of Rome for hours after a couple from Hong Kong was found to have a fever. Thankfully, both passengers tested negative for the virus this afternoon.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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