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.
Meanwhile, the US has told its citizens not to travel to China.
The state department issued a level four warning – having previously urged Americans to “reconsider” travel to China – and said any citizens in China “should consider departing using commercial means”.
China has said it will send charter plans to bring back Hubei province residents who are overseas “as soon as possible”.
A foreign ministry spokesman said this was because of the “practical difficulties” Chinese citizens have faced abroad. Hubei is where the virus emerged.
At least 213 people in the China have died from the virus, mostly in Hubei, with almost 10,000 cases nationally.
- US advises against all travel to China over virus
- Cement mixers become celebrities in China lockdown
The WHO said there had been 98 cases in 18 other countries, but no deaths.
Most international cases are in people who had been to Wuhan in Hubei.
However in eight cases – in Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the United States – patients were infected by people who had travelled to China.
Speaking at a news conference in Geneva, Dr Tedros described the virus as an “unprecedented outbreak” that has been met with an “unprecedented response”.
He praised the “extraordinary measures” Chinese authorities had taken, and said there was no reason to limit trade or travel to China.
- Trump official: Coronavirus may boost US jobs
- Britons on evacuation flight home from Wuhan
“Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China,” he said.
But various countries have taken steps to close borders or cancel flights, and companies like Google, Ikea, Starbucks and Tesla have closed their shops or stopped operations.
The US Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, has said the outbreak could “accelerate the return of jobs to North America”.
Preparing other countries
What happens if this virus finds its way into a country that cannot cope?
Many low- and middle-income countries simply lack the tools to spot or contain it. The fear is it could spread uncontrollably and that it may go unnoticed for some time.
Remember this is a disease which emerged only last month – and yet there are already almost 10,000 confirmed cases in China.
The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa – the largest in human history – showed how easily poorer countries can be overwhelmed by such outbreaks.
And if novel coronavirus gets a significant foothold in such places, then it would