The deadly new coronavirus continued its spread beyond China with cases surging rapidly Monday in Italy, Iran and South Korea.
The number of people sickened by the disease has now topped 79,000 globally, officials said.
“The past few weeks has demonstrated just how quickly a new virus can spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption,” said the head of the UN’s World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, yes,” Tedros said.
But, he added, “for the moment we’re not witnessing the uncontained global spread of the virus.”
In Italy alone, the number of patients rose from three on Friday to 229 on Monday — while the death toll climbed to seven.
A dozen of northern towns, with a total population of about 50,000, were placed under quarantine.
In Iran, at least 12 people have died of COVID-19 and 61 have been sickened, according to government officials — although one lawmaker said it was significantly higher.
A representative from the city of Qom, Ahmad Amiriabadi Farahani, said 50 people had died in Iran from the virus, but a health ministry spokesman insisted it was only 12 nationwide.
Five neighboring countries — Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Afghanistan — reported their first cases Monday, all people with links to Iran.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday issued a travel warning for both Iran and Italy, telling travelers to “practice usual precautions.”
A team from WHO arrived in Italy Monday and will be in Iran on Tuesday.
Transmissions were widespread in South Korea, with authorities reporting 70 more cases on Monday, bringing the total to 833.
President Moon Jae-in placed the nation under red alert, allowing for “unprecedented, powerful steps” to curb the outbreak.
The number of confirmed cases in the US rose to 53 Monday, health officials said. That included 39 people evacuated back to the US from a virus-hit cruise ship in Japan and the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus.
China still has the vast majority of cases and deaths at 77,150 and 2,592, respectively, but has been recording lower levels of new infections.
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