The world must prepare for a potential coronavirus pandemic, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.
Tedros Ghebreyesus said the spread of the virus around the world is not yet at pandemic stage but acknowledged it has the potential to become one.
The WHO no longer uses an official scale to declare a pandemic, although spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the PA news agency it will start to use the term in communications if it believes a pandemic is reached.
Speaking in Geneva, Dr Ghebreyesus said the focus must still be on containing the virus in individual countries, adding that the world is not yet seeing “large-scale severe disease or death”.
He said the WHO was “encouraged by the continued decline in cases in China”, though more 77,362 cases have been declared there, including 2,618 deaths.
A specialist team sent to China found that the epidemic peaked and plateaued between January 23 and February 2, and has since been declining steadily, he said.
Dr Ghebreyesus said the death rate is between 2% and 4% in Wuhan city, where the virus originated, and 0.7% outside Wuhan.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) February 24, 2020
For people with mild disease, recovery time is about two weeks, while people with severe or critical disease recover within three to six weeks.
Outside China, there are now 2,074 cases confirmed in 28 countries, and 23 deaths, including a rapid rise in cases in Italy, South Korea and Iran, he added.
“The sudden increases of cases in Italy, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Korea are deeply concerning,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.
“There’s a lot of speculation about whether these increases mean that this epidemic has now become a pandemic.
“WHO has already declared a public health emergency of international concern – our highest level of alarm – when there were less than 100 cases outside China, and eight cases of human-to-human transmission.
“Our decision about whether to use the word ‘pandemic’ to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society.
“For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death.
“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
He said the world was seeing epidemics affecting countries in different ways.
“Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear,” he added.
“We must focus on containment, while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.”
In Italy, around 50,000 people are affected by a lockdown in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto, after the country reported more than 160 cases – the largest number in Europe.
In the UK, 13 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 caused by the virus, including four over the weekend who had been on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was held in quarantine in Japan.
On Monday, Downing Street insisted the UK was “well prepared” and the risk to individuals remained low.
Asked whether the UK could put in place restrictive measures such as those seen in Italy to combat the spread of the disease, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We will be led by the advice from public health and medical experts and will take steps which they feel are required to best protect the British public.
“We are well prepared for UK cases, we are using tried and tested procedures to prevent further spread and the NHS is extremely well prepared and used to managing infections.
“We continue to work closely with the World Health Organisation and international partners as the situation develops and we remain prepared for all eventualities.”
UPDATE on coronavirus (#COVID19) testing in the UK:
As of 2PM 24 February 2020, a total of 6,536 tests have concluded:6,527 negative.9 positive.
These figures don't include the four cases from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who are now in the UK.
— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) February 24, 2020
The Foreign Office has not advised Britons against travel to Italy, but has updated its website with information about the situation there.
There are no figures yet on whether any Britons are affected by the lockdown and are stuck in Italy.
People in the affected areas are being told to follow public health advice from local authorities.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “We already have a Covid-19 epidemic in China and, more recently, large outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Italy.
“If those outbreaks cannot be brought under control, then Covid-19 would fit the criteria of a pandemic.”
Bharat Pankhania, from the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “We now consider this to be a pandemic in all but name, and it’s only a matter of time before the World Health Organisation starts to use the term in its communications.
“This gives us focus and tells us that the virus is now appearing in other countries and transmitting far afield from China.
“However, it doesn’t change our approach in monitoring the outbreak. In the UK, there’s no need to move towards mitigation strategies, as so far our containment policies are working.”
He said global infections could begin to drop as the warmer months come in, or could continue for another six to 18 months.
The four Britons from the Diamond Princess cruise ship are being treated at specialist centres.They were among a group of 30 Britons and two Irish citizens who arrived at a quarantine block at Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside on Saturday.
Two of the patients are in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, one is in the Royal Liverpool University Hospital and a fourth was taken to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.