WHO 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.
The number of deaths and new infections has been tapering off in China, following unprecedented quarantine efforts locking down tens of millions of people in the worst-hit cities.
But infections elsewhere have started to surge, with Iran, Italy and South Korea becoming the major new hotspots and cases being confirmed in around 50 countries.
“We see a number of countries struggling with containment,” said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program.
The WHO has voiced particular concern about Africa’s preparedness, warning that the continent’s health care systems were ill-equipped to respond to a COVID-19 epidemic.
Cases had previously been reported in Egypt and Algeria, but not in the sub-Saharan region until Friday when Nigeria reported its first case: an Italian man in densely populated Lagos.
Stock markets around the world have plummeted this week as it has become increasingly clear the virus will take a huge toll on the global economy.
Oil prices also dived four percent to their lowest levels for more than a year, with Brent oil for April delivery sinking as low as $50.05 a barrel.
Analysts have warned that China, the world’s second largest economy, will see a major cut in growth this quarter as the country remains largely paralyzed by quarantines and containment measures.
Still, signs in China offered hope that the outbreak could be contained.
In Europe, the largest epicenter is Italy with 650 cases and 17 deaths — mostly in cities in the north.
Wide-ranging measures to halt the spread of the virus have affected tens of millions of people in northern Italy, with schools closed and cultural and sporting events cancelled.
Experts said the virus had probably “circulated unnoticed for several weeks” before the first confirmed cases — possibly since January.
Belarus, Denmark, Iceland, Lithuania, Mexico and New Zealand were the latest countries to report new cases.