Fears are growing that the coronavirus outbreak could reach pandemic scale as more cases emerge around the world.
Most infections are in China but other nations like South Korea, Italy and Iran are battling the virus, which causes respiratory disease Covid-19.
A pandemic is when an infectious disease spreads easily from person to person in many parts of the world.
About 77,000 people in China, where the virus emerged last year, have been infected and nearly 2,600 have died.
More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in about 30 other countries and there have been more than 20 deaths. Italy reported two more deaths on Monday, raising the total there to five.
The proportion of infected patients dying from Covid-19 appears to be between 1% and 2%, although the World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that the mortality rate is not known yet.
On Monday Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Bahrain reported their first cases, all involving people who had come from Iran.
Among other developments:
- China said it would postpone its annual meeting of parliament next month in order to “continue the efforts” against the coronavirus
- Gold surged to its highest price in seven years as coronavirus fears led investors to seek a safe haven
- Worldwide stock markets saw sharp falls due to concerns about the economic impact of the virus
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Friday that the window of opportunity to contain the virus was “narrowing”.
Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia in the UK, echoed his fears, saying the spike in cases outside China was “extremely concerning”.
“The tipping point after which our ability to prevent a global pandemic seems a lot closer after the past 24 hours,” he said on Monday.
WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the BBC that the situation was not being seen as a pandemic at the moment because countries were managing to prevent the virus spreading too far.
“If countries took no measures at all we would have seen way, way, way more cases,” she said. “That’s what we mean by containment.”
What are the symptoms?
The main signs of infection are fever (high temperature) and a cough as well as shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
What should I do?
Frequent handwashing with soap or gel, avoiding close contact with people who are ill and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands can help cut the risk of infection.
Catching coughs and sneezes in a tissue, binning it and washing your hands can minimise the risk of spreading disease.
World edges closer to coronavirus pandemic
Analysis by Fergus Walsh, medical correspondent
The combined situation in South Korea, Iran and Italy points to the early stages of pandemic.
In each of these countries we are seeing spread of the virus with no connection to China. The lockdown efforts in Italy mirror those that have happened in China.
The situation in Iran is especially worrying, because the health authorities have reportedly said the virus has spread to multiple cities, and it appears the first case in Lebanon is linked to a traveller from Iran.
If we have a pandemic, it will still be important to limit the speed of spread of the virus.
If countries could hold it somewhat at bay until the end of winter, there is a hope that warmer temperatures will reduce the time the virus can survive in the air, as we see with seasonal flu. But this may not be certain.
What does ‘pandemic’ mean?
- A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease
- The H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, was declared a pandemic by the WHO in 2009
- The WHO no longer formally labels an outbreak of disease a “pandemic” but says the term may be used “colloquially”
- Its advice to countries – to limit the infections while preparing for wider spread – remains the same
Which are the worst-affected countries?
South Korea – which has the largest number of confirmed cases outside China – reported another 231 infections on Monday taking the total there to more than 830. Eight people have died.
Around 7,700 troops have been quarantined after 11 military members were infected.
But the biggest virus clusters have been linked to a hospital and a religious group near the south-eastern city of Daegu.
Italy has the largest number of cases in Europe, 165, and announced a series of drastic measures over the weekend to try to contain the outbreak.
In the regions of Lombardy and Veneto, a lock-down is in place in several small towns. For the next two weeks, 50,000 residents will not be able to leave without special permission.
Even outside the zone, many businesses and schools have suspended activities, and sporting events have been cancelled.
The two latest deaths announced on Monday were both in Lombardy, Italian media reported.
It is not yet clear how the virus entered the country, officials said.
In China, officials in the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, announced on Monday that some non-residents would be allowed to leave if they showed no symptoms.
However, authorities later said that order was made without authorisation and had been revoked.
China reported 409 new infections on Monday, the bulk of which were in Wuhan.
Iran said on Sunday it had 61 confirmed cases of the virus, most of them in the holy city of Qom. Twelve of those infected have died, the highest number of deaths outside China.
On Monday an MP in Qom accused the government of covering up the extent of the outbreak, saying there were 50 deaths in the city alone. However, the country’s deputy health minister quickly denied the claim.
Meanwhile, North Korea has quarantined 380 foreigners in a bid to stop the coronavirus from breaking out.