The World Health Organization warned countries on Monday to be ready for a “potential pandemic” as new deaths and infections in Europe, the Middle East and Asia triggered more drastic efforts to contain the new coronavirus.
The number of fatalities in China — where the virus emerged late last year — also continued to soar, with 150 more deaths taking the official toll to nearly 2,600.
Chinese authorities insist they are containing the virus, citing slowing infection rates, thanks to unprecedented lockdowns and quarantines in or near the outbreak’s epicentre.
But the spread of the virus in other parts of the world has accelerated over the past week, with Iran, South Korea and Italy emerging as new hotspots.
Deaths were reported in each of those countries on Monday, while Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman also announced their first cases of the virus.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said countries should be “doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic”, though the world body does not consider it has reached that point yet.
“The sudden increase of cases in Italy, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Korea are deeply concerning,” Tedros told reporters in Geneva.
Another WHO official said the virus could be around “for months”.
The wave of bad news sent global stock markets and oil prices tumbling as investors headed for safe-haven gold.
Authorities ramped up efforts to contain the spread of the virus, seeking to seal off borders and ordering people to stay indoors to stop them travelling.
But experts warned the virus, officially named COVID-19, was likely to easily spread in a similar manner to common seasonal flu.
“It seems that the virus can pass from person to person without symptoms, making it extremely difficult to track, regardless of what health authorities do,” said Simon Clarke, cellular microbiology associate professor at Reading University in Britain.
Football, fashion curbed
Fears were also growing in Europe, with Italy reporting two more deaths Monday, bringing the total to five.
More than 200 people have been infected there, and several Serie A football games were postponed over the weekend.
The famed Venice Carnival was also cut short, and some Milan Fashion Week runway shows were cancelled.
More than 50,000 people in about a dozen northern Italian towns have been told to stay home, and police set up checkpoints to enforce a blockade.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that residents could face weeks of lockdown.
The virus is taking an increasingly heavy toll on the global economy, with many factories in China closed or subdued due to the quarantines.
The International Monetary Fund warned Sunday that the epidemic was putting a “fragile” global economic recovery at risk, while the White House said the shutdowns in China will have an impact on the United States.
China’s agenda-setting annual parliament meeting was on Monday postponed for the first time since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.