The warning came as Italy saw its first death from the virus amid a rash of infections and moved to close public spaces in ten towns, in a move with echoes of China’s lockdown of entire cities in the province at the center of the outbreak.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has for weeks insisted the low number of cases of COVID-19 outside the epicenter of the deadly outbreak in China’s central Hubei province presented a “window of opportunity” to contain the international spread.
But as cases surged across the Middle East and in South Korea Friday, he cautioned for the first time that while “we are still in a phase where containment is possible… our window of opportunity is narrowing.”
He warned that if countries did not quickly mobilize to fight the spread of the virus, “this outbreak could go in any direction. It could even be messy.”
Officially, the outbreak which began in December has already killed more than 2,200 people and infected more than 75,500 in China.
More than 1,150 people have also been infected and more than a dozen have died across 27 other countries.
On Friday, cases of the deadly virus were reported in a range of countries in the Middle East, including in Israel and Lebanon for the first time, while Iran said four people there had died and 18 been infected in the outbreak.
In Italy, state-run RAI television reported a 78-year-old man died Friday. He was one of two people in the northern Veneto region to have been infected.
In Lombardy, at least 14 new cases were confirmed, representing the first infections in Italy acquired through secondary contagion and bringing the country’s total to 19. The cluster was located in a handful of tiny towns southeast of Milan, said Lombardy regional health chief Giulio Gallera.
Over 50,000 people have been asked to stay at home in the areas concerned in northern Italy while all public activities such as carnival celebrations, church masses and sporting events have been banned for up to a week.
In South Korea, infections on Friday nearly doubled to 204, making it the hardest-hit country outside China.
The US advised citizens to avoid traveling by cruise liner in Asia because it said the vessels acted as amplifiers of the virus.
Two Australians evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship also tested positive for coronavirus on returning home, despite being cleared in Japan.
The cases will fuel questions about Tokyo’s policy of allowing former Diamond Princess passengers to return home after testing negative.
The world modern pentathlon championships were also been moved from the Chinese city of Xiamen to Cancun in Mexico due to the outbreak.
Tedros stressed though that the number of cases outside of China still remained “relatively small.”
But he voiced concern “about the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to or contact with a confirmed case,” urging countries worldwide to be “very, very serious” about preventing the spread of the virus.
“We must not look back and regret that we failed to take advantage of the window of opportunity we have.”
At a Politburo meeting chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday, the leadership said the epidemic’s peak “has not yet arrived,” and the situation in Hubei and Wuhan remains “grim and complex,” according to state media.
The National Health Commission also said in its daily update that China tallied 889 new cases, up from the previous day when it reported the lowest number of new infections in nearly a month, fueling hopes that the epidemic is nearing its peak.
But Hubei’s figures have raised questions as officials have changed methods of counting cases twice and amended their figures.
A 29-year-old Wuhan doctor died on Thursday, making him one of the youngest known fatalities of the epidemic and the eighth among medical workers.
New hotspots were found in several prisons and hospitals, prompting the firing of a number of officials.
Header: Patients infected with the coronavirus take rest at a temporary hospital converted from Wuhan Sports Center in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, February 17, 2020. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)