• The coronavirus has killed 132 people in China and infected more than 6,150
  • Most infections and all deaths have occurred within China itself
  • There are currently 71 cases of the virus outside of China in 15 countries.

The World Health Organization, or WHO, said the spread of the coronavirus is of “grave concern” and will reconvene an emergency meeting on Thursday to determine whether it has become a global public health emergency.

At two emergency meetings held last week WHO did not declare the virus a global emergency.

Thus far, the coronavirus has killed 132 people in China and infected more than 6,150.

While most infections and all deaths have occurred within China itself, a few cases of human-to-human contact have been reported outside of China.

“These developments in terms of the evolution of the outbreak and further development of transmission -- these are of grave concern and has spurred countries into action,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, at a news conference on Wednesday. “What we know at this stage, this is still obviously a very active outbreak and information is being updated and changing by the hour.”

Ryan, who just returned to WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland from China, said there are currently 71 cases outside of China in 15 countries.

Since the first infected patient was identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan on Dec. 31, the number of coronavirus cases has soared to 6,061 within mainland China by Wednesday morning. The number of infections now exceeds the total number of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, cases during the 2003 epidemic.

Between Nov. 1, 2002, and July 31, 2003, there were 5,327 SARS cases in China – and about 800 were killed by that virus.

There are various criteria WHO uses to determine a global public health emergency. One is whether the coronavirus spreads locally after it arrives in other parts of the world. Another important criterion is whether the virus will likely interfere with trade and travel.

Ryan explained that WHO wants to contain an outbreak without unnecessarily disrupting economic activity by declaring a global emergency.

Ryan also praised the Chinese response to the outbreak: "The challenge is great but the response has been massive" he said. “The whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action and be ready for any cases that come” in China or elsewhere.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the “continued increase in cases and the evidence of human-to-human transmission outside of China are, of course, most deeply disturbing. Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”

Tedros said he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, China’s National Health Commission Minister, Ma Xiaowei, and China’s Minister Of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, on Tuesday in Beijing. During the visit, Tedros and the Chinese officials talked about how to contain the virus and share data on transmission.

“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” said Tedros. “We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated, including sharing data and genetic sequence of the virus. WHO is working closely with the government on measures to understand the virus and limit transmission. WHO will keep working side-by-side with China and all other countries to protect health and keep people safe.”

James Gallagher, BBC health and science correspondent, wrote that it is too early to determine the magnitude of this virus.

“It is far too simplistic to take the 130 deaths and the 6,000 cases and come up with a death rate of 2%,” he wrote. “We're in the middle of the outbreak and thousands of those patients are still being treated. We don't know if they will live or die, so they can't be used in these calculations. We also don't know how many mild and undetected cases are out there.”

WHO indicated that while the city of Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province is believed to be the place where the virus originated, the “source of the outbreak and the extent to which it has spread in China are not yet known.”

Current understanding of the disease also remains limited -- most cases reported thus far have been relatively mild, with around 20% of those infected experiencing “severe illness.”

In the event WHO declares the coronavirus a global public health emergency, it will be able to coordinate government responses to the crisis.