The World Health Organization on Friday raised its global risk assessment of the new coronavirus to its highest level after the epidemic spread to sub-Saharan Africa and caused financial markets to plunge.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the risk was being raised to "very high" because of the continued increase in cases and the number of new countries affected in recent days.
These developments "are clearly of concern", Tedros told reporters in Geneva.
But he added: "We still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts."
“The continued increase in the number of cases and the number of affected countries over the last few days are clearly of concern,” he said.
“Our epidemiologists have been monitoring these developments continuously and we have now increased our assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at global level,'' he said.
The virus has proliferated around the globe over the past week, emerging on every continent except Antarctica, prompting many governments and businesses to try to stop people travelling or gathering in crowded places.
Switzerland became the latest country to announce drastic measures on Friday, saying all events with more than 1,000 participants would be suspended until March 15.
In Nigeria, where the first case of infection has been confirmed and isolated, the UN agency said it had “great confidence” that the country could contain the virus.
This was thanks to the fact that the country has had success in dealing with other disease outbreaks, such as Lassa fever and measles – and it had invested significantly to do so – said WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.
Currently, more than 20 vaccines are in development around the world, along with several therapeutic medicines; the first results were expected within weeks, Tedros said.
Personal responsibility is critical
In the meantime, the best thing people can do is to be diligent about their personal hygiene, the UN health agency chief insisted, and look out for symptoms, which include a dry cough and fever, rather than a runny nose.
The preventative health advice is particularly important with regard to handwashing with soap or alcohol gels, sneezing or coughing into a tissue or the crook of your arm, and staying at home if you feel poorly.
Explaining the implications of the latest threat assessment, Dr Ryan said that while it was the highest level of alert, the aim was to encourage countries to act, rather than alarm them.
“We need to keep this virus slowed down, because health systems around the world – and I mean North and South – are just not ready…the risk of spread has clearly increased but the risk of impact has also increased because of what we see in health systems around the world.
Time to act is now
“It’s time to prepare, it’s time to get ready. It’s time to act and people need to take a reality check now and really understand that an all-of-government and an all-of-society approach (is required). It’s time to act.”
Echoing the need for aggressive action such as that implemented by China, WHO’s Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove noted that other countries which had followed its lead has seen similar successes in containing the virus, resulting in valuable breathing space for their health systems.
“In Singapore, you look at what has happened in terms of the cases they have had; they’re now seeing a rapid decline in cases. You see what happened in Nepal, there was an onward transmission there. You see what’s happened in Viet Nam, where there were some cases and now there’s no further cases”, she said. “These are all examples of where countries have been successful in containing this.”
She added: “The point is, the earlier we act…and how robustly in those initial cases, will determine if you’re dealing with a number of cases, one case, or a small cluster, or if you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands.”