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'Too Early' To Declare Coronavirus Global Health Emergency As Death Toll Soars To 18

The World Health Organisation says it is "a bit too early" to declare a new coronavirus a global health emergency as China put millions of people on lockdown.

The outbreak has killed 18 people and infected more than 630, while health officials fear the transmission rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad for the Lunar New Year, which begins on Saturday.

"It is a bit too early to consider that this is a public health emergency of international concern," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva on Thursday.

He said the organisation's emergency committee of 16 independent experts had been divided in its conclusion.

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"Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China. But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one," he said.

Jeremy Farrar, of the Wellcome Trust, told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos the virus had likely come from bats.

The highly contagious virus likely jumped from the animals to humans, who then began to spread it among themselves, he explained.

Farfer said he was 'very concerned' about the situation, and warned against suggesting the virus was only China's issue.

"This will become a global issue," he said. "It's going to affect us all."

So far, five Chinese cities have been shut down: Wuhan, Huanggang, Ezhou, Chibi and Zhijiang.

Cases have been reported in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and the US, and major international airports are screening passengers who have been to the city for the virus.

-WITH AAP