The World Health Organization has said the world should do more to prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic.
The WHO said it was too early to call the outbreak a pandemic but countries should be “in a phase of preparedness”.
A pandemic is when an infectious disease spreads easily from person to person in many parts of the world.
More cases of the virus, which causes respiratory disease Covid-19, continue to emerge, with outbreaks in South Korea, Italy and Iran causing concern.
However, most infections are in China, the original source of the virus, where 77,000 people have the disease and nearly 2,600 have died. The number of new cases there is now falling.
More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in about 30 other countries and there have been more than 20 deaths. Italy reported three more deaths on Monday, raising the total there to six.
Worldwide stock markets saw sharp falls because of concerns about the economic impact of the virus.
China said it would postpone the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress next month, to “continue the efforts” against the coronavirus.
The body, which approves decisions made by the Communist Party, has met every year since 1978.
The proportion of infected people who die from Covid-19 appears to be between 1% and 2%, although the WHO cautions that the mortality rate is not known yet.
On Monday Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain reported their first cases, all involving people who had come from Iran. Officials in Bahrain said the patient infected there was a school bus driver, and several schools had been closed as a result.
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- North Korea has quarantined 380 foreigners in a bid to stop the coronavirus from breaking out.
What does the WHO say?
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference on Monday that the number of new cases in recent days in Iran, Italy and South Korea was “deeply concerning” but not yet a pandemic.
“For the moment we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large scale severe disease or deaths,” he said.
“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
But Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies programme, said now was the time to make preparations.
“It is time to do everything you would do to prepare for a pandemic,” he said.
What are the symptoms?
The main signs of infection are fever (high temperature) and a cough as well as shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
What should I do?
Frequent handwashing with soap or gel, avoiding close contact with people who are ill and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands can help cut the risk of infection.
Catching coughs and sneezes in a tissue, binning it and washing your hands can minimise the risk of spreading disease.
World edges closer to coronavirus pandemic
Analysis by Fergus Walsh, medical correspondent
The combined situation in South Korea, Iran and Italy points to the early stages of pandemic.
In each of these countries we are seeing spread of the virus with no connection to China. The lockdown efforts in Italy mirror those that have happened in China.
The situation in Iran is especially worrying, because the health authorities have reportedly said the virus has spread to multiple cities, and it appears the first case in Lebanon is linked to a traveller from Iran.
If we have a pandemic, it will still be important to limit the speed of spread of the virus.
If countries could hold it somewhat at bay until the end of winter, there is a hope that warmer temperatures will reduce the time the virus can survive in the air, as we see with seasonal flu. But this may not be certain.
What does ‘pandemic’ mean?
- A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease
- The H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, was declared a pandemic by the WHO in 2009
- The WHO no longer formally labels an outbreak of disease a “pandemic” but says the term may be used “colloquially”
- Its advice to countries – to limit the infections while preparing for wider spread – remains the same
Which are the worst-affected countries?
South Korea – which has the largest number of confirmed cases outside China – reported another 231 infections on Monday taking the total there to more than 830. Eight people have died.
Around 7,700 troops have been quarantined after 11 military members were infected.
But the biggest virus clusters have been linked to a hospital and a religious group near the south-eastern city of Daegu.
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Italy has the largest number of cases in Europe, 165, and announced a series of drastic measures over the weekend to try to contain the outbreak.
In the regions of Lombardy and Veneto, a lock-down is in place in several small towns. For the next two weeks, 50,000 residents will not be able to leave without special permission.
Even outside the zone, many businesses and schools have suspended activities, and sporting events have been cancelled.
Three deaths announced on Monday were all in Lombardy, Italian media reported.
It is not yet clear how the virus entered the country, officials said.
In China, officials in the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, announced on Monday that some non-residents would be allowed to leave if they showed no symptoms.
However, authorities later said that order was made without authorisation and had been revoked.
China reported 409 new infections on Monday, the bulk of which were in Wuhan.
Iran said on Sunday it had 61 confirmed cases of the virus, most of them in the holy city of Qom. Twelve of those infected have died, the highest number of deaths outside China.
On Monday an MP in Qom accused the government of covering up the extent of the outbreak, saying there were 50 deaths in the city alone. However, the country’s deputy health minister quickly denied the claim.