The MERS coronavirus is public health emergency, the World Health Organization's panel of international experts says.

Since April 2012, 80 laboratory confirmed cases of human infections with MERS coronavirus have been reported to WHO, including 45 deaths. Of the cases, 65 occurred in Saudi Arabia.

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It is not clear whether transmission of MERS coronavirus is sustained in the community. (Beth Fischer/Canadian Press)

"While it is clear that human-to-human transmission does occur, it is not clear whether transmission is sustained in the community," WHO said on its website.

Sustained human-to-human transmission is one of the defining features of a pandemic.

Under the International Health Regions, the declaration of a pandemic means a virus is spreading from person to person in a sustained manner in at least two regions. The declaration acts as a signal to governments to spend more on containing the virus.

Affected countries include Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Tunisia. All the European and North African cases have had a direct or indirect connection to the Middle East, according to WHO.

Limited transmission among close contacts who had not been to the Middle East has occurred in France, Italy, Tunisia and UK, WHO said. Close contacts include family members, co-workers, fellow patients and healthcare workers.

More information could also help governments advising people travelling to Saudi Arabia for hajj pilgrimage in October as well as the year-round umrah pilgrimages. Umrah is likely to be more crowed during the Ramadan fast, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website.

There are currently no travel restrictions related to MERS from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which recommends general travel advice. In June, WHO experts advised countries at risk from MERS to plan for mass gatherings. The UN health agency issues similar recommendations before major international sporting events.

People who have been infected with MERS coronavirus have experienced influenza-like illness  such as coughing, mucous, shortness of breath, malaise, chest pain and fever. Many have also had gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea.

With files from Reuters