Coronavirus has officially been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation.
Health experts made the announcement on Thursday evening following a meeting of the WHO emergency committee in Geneva, Switzerland.
They confirmed there are now 98 cases in 18 countries outside China, while there have been eight involving human-to-human transmission in Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the US.
Following the announcement, British medical officers increased the risk level in the UK from low to moderate.
Around 150 UK citizens are due to be brought back from a flight leaving the epicentre of the outbreak, the Chinese city of Wuhan, at 7am local time on Friday (11pm Thursday UK time).
Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, said the outbreak of the ‘previously unknown pathogen’ has ‘escalated’ in an ‘unprecedented’ fashion.
He told reporters: ‘The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries.
‘Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it…
‘We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.’
Coronavirus has now infected more people in China than fell ill during the 2002-2003 Sars outbreak, with the number of cases jumping to 7,800, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with the latter.
At least 170 people have died from the virus in China, however there have so far been no deaths outside of the country – something Mr Adhanom said we ‘must all be grateful’ for.
He adeed that the vast majority of cases outside China have a travel history to Wuhan, or have had contact with someone connected to Wuhan.
Mr Adhanom said that the ‘extraordinary’ efforts made by China to contain the outbreak, including constructing two hospitals in just days, has significantly limited the impact outside the country.
In the UK, 161 people have tested negative for the virus as of Thursday.
In a letter following the WHO’s announcement, chief medical officers of the UK said the government must ramp up planning efforts in the case of a more widespread outbreak.
It added: ‘For that reason, we are advising an increase of the UK risk level from low to moderate. This does not mean we think the risk to individuals in the UK has changed at this stage, but that government should plan for all eventualities.’
They added that it is ‘likely’ there will be individual cases in the UK, but that they are ‘confident in the ability of the NHS and HSC in Northern Ireland to manage these in a way that protects the public and provides high quality care’.
British passengers on the evacuation flight from Wuhan, which will have military medics on board, will land at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on Friday morning.
They will then be taken to an NHS facility on the Wirral for a quarantine period of 14 days.
It is understood they will be taken to a former student accommodation block in the grounds of Arrowe Park Hospital.
Fifty people – mainly from EU countries – will also be on the evacuation flight which will head to Spain afterwards.
What is the coronavirus and where did it start?
Coronaviruses are a family of diseases which include the common cold and the virus which caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which originated in China in 2002 and killed nearly 800 people around the world.
The virus causing concern now is a new strain which has made the jump from animals to people.
It causes flu-like symptoms and can make it hard for people to breathe, causing viral pneumonia in severe cases.
Over 100 people worldwide have now died after contracting the illness.
The virus is more likely to progress into a severe illness or prove fatal among older patients or those with weakened immune systems.
As it is a viral illness, antibiotics will not help and there is no known cure or vaccine.
The Foreign Office has warned against all but essential travel to mainland China, and British Airways has subsequently suspended flights there.
They have not advised against travel to Thailand and Japan, which have both seen cases of the virus, but warned there are enhanced quarantine procedures at entry points to Japan such as airports and ports.
If you’re booked onto a flight with BA and are scheduled to fly between January 26 – February 23, you can request a refund.
In order to do this, get in touch with them directly through the BA website.
They also offer the option to rebook to the same destination, although it is not known when flights to mainland China will resume.
To avoid the illness, take usual hygiene precautions, such as using a tissue to cover coughs and sneezes, and making sure to wash your hands.
Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth after touching things like poles on public transport and avoid close contact with people suffering an acute respiratory infection.
You should also avoid unprotected contact with wild or farm animals.
So far, no cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the UK.
Almost 100 people have been tested for it here, with all of the tests coming back negative.
The virus originated in the city of Wuhan in China, where it is believed to have made the jump from animals to people at a seafood market.
Wuhan is the capital of China’s Hubei province, a landlocked province in central China.
It is built along the Yangtze river, and is around 500 miles west of Shanghai and 690 miles north of Hong Kong.
It is the largest and most populous city in central China, although estimates over its population vary.