GENEVA/DUBAI (REUTERS) - No country should make the "fatal mistake" of assuming it will be spared the coronavirus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Thursday (Feb 27), as governments from Iran to Australia raced to contain the epidemic's rapid global spread.
With new infections reported around the world now surpassing those in mainland China, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said even rich nations should prepare for surprises.
"No country should assume it won't get cases, that would be a fatal mistake, quite literally," Tedros said, pointing to Italy, where authorities said three more people had died, bringing the toll from Europe's worst outbreak of the illness to 17. Confirmed cases there rose to 650.
In addition to stockpiling medical supplies, governments ordered schools shut and cancelled big gatherings, including sports events, to try to halt spread of the flu-like disease that emerged in China more than two months ago from an illegal wildlife market.
It is on the decline in China itself after an aggressive containment campaign, but rising elsewhere.
There is particular concern over a case in Japan in which a woman tested positive for the virus for a second time.
Second positive tests have also been reported in China and could imply contracting the disease does not confer immunity. Scientists warned that much remains unknown about the virus.
The head of the WHO's emergency programme, Dr Mike Ryan, said discussions were being held with organisers about the fate of the 2020 Olympics, scheduled for July in Tokyo, although no decision was expected soon.
Their cancellation or relocation would be a massive blow for Japan, which said it was closing its entire school system for the next month in a bid to prevent spread of the virus.
The new coronavirus had mainly battered China, causing nearly 80,000 infections and more than 2,700 deaths, according to WHO figures. It has spread to another 44 countries, where around 3,500 cases and 54 deaths have been reported.
Though the outbreak meets the definition of a pandemic - widespread contagion across a large region - the WHO has so far held back from using the term.
"This virus has pandemic potential," Tedros told reporters in Geneva.
He said Iran, Italy and South Korea were at a "decisive point," still short of sustained community transmission.
Spooked by the impact on China, the heart of corporate supply chains, and the increasing effect on other countries, stocks sank deeper into the red on Thursday and oil prices fell.
Global equity markets have dropped for six straight days, wiping out more than US$3.6 trillion (S$5 trillion) in value.
Jeremy Farrar, a specialist in infectious disease epidemics and director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity, urged finance institutions to commit an initial US$10 billion funds to fighting the virus.
"What we are really missing is tangible, high-level funding and support from global financial institutions," he said in a statement.
"The possible impact of this coronavirus is far beyond a health emergency - it's a global crisis with potential to reach the scale of the global financial crisis of 2008."
Traders are betting the US Federal Reserve will move aggressively to cut borrowing costs in coming months in response to the effects of the coronavirus on the economy.
Politicians are also scrambling to respond.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison ordered hospitals to ensure sufficient medical and protective supplies and staff, while President Donald Trump's administration was considering invoking special powers to rapidly expand US production of protective masks and clothing, two officials said.
President Emmanuel Macron attempted to rally the nation as France's number of reported cases doubled.
"We have a crisis before us. An epidemic is on its way," Macron said.
Germany, too, has warned of an impending epidemic. And Greece, a gateway for refugees from the Middle East and beyond, announced tighter border controls.
There is no cure for the coronavirus, which can lead to pneumonia, and a vaccine may take up to 18 months to develop.
Iran, urging people to avoid unnecessary travel, extended closures of cinemas, cultural events and conferences for another week and called off Friday prayers in some cities.
The WHO's Ryan said Iran's outbreak may be worse than yet realised. It has suffered the highest death toll outside China, with 26 dead and 245 infected, including some senior officials.
The high rate of deaths compared to other countries suggests there are many cases that have yet to be detected, experts say.
Italy, desperate to stave off a probable recession, warned that an "epidemic of misleading information" could do worse harm than the virus itself.
The coronavirus has played havoc with global aviation and tourism as airlines cancel flights, countries ban visitors from hot spots and nervous passengers put off travel.
Chinese authorities said the number of new deaths there stood at 29, its lowest daily tally since Jan 28. There were 433 new cases in mainland China over the previous day, compared to 586 in nations and territories elsewhere.