The coronavirus is closer to causing a pandemic, but outbreaks in countries can still be controlled through a combination of containment and mitigation measures, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said today.
Four countries - China, South Korea, Italy and Iran - account for 93% of the nearly 110,000 cases reported by more than 100 countries worldwide, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
"Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real," Tedros told a news conference. "But it would be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled. The bottom line is we are not at the mercy of the virus."
"Whether it's pandemic or not," he added, "the rule of the game is the same - never give up."
China is "bringing its epidemic under control," while the Republic of Korea has reported a decline in new cases, Tedros said, also praising containment measures taken in Singapore.
"We are encouraged that Italy is taking aggressive measures to contain its epidemic and we hope that those measures prove effective in the coming days," he added.
Italy, the worst-hit European nation, has imposed a virtual lockdown on the northern region of Lombardy and parts of neighbouring Veneto.
The death toll from Italy's outbreak rose by 97 to 463, the Civil Protection Agency said on Monday, a slower rate of increase than registered the day before. The total number of cases in Italy, however, jumped 24% to 9,172, the largest daily increase in terms of absolute numbers since the contagion first came to light there on February 21.
Dr Mike Ryan, WHO's top emergencies expert, compared Italy's decision to restrict movement from the hard-hit north to China's relative success in focusing on the large epidemic in Wuhan and Hubei province to stem the spread to other provinces.
"Reducing the flow of potential infections into other areas may offer those zones the opportunity to prepare and potentially have a different outcome. That's what we saw in China, we saw the provinces getting an earlier warning, they were able to prepare.
"It's not going to stop disease necessarily moving out of those zones ... That to me represents a reasonable tactical approach. It's not a guarantee," Ryan said.