Countries are making a “fatal mistake” to think they are immune from coronavirus, the World Health Organisation has warned, as more European countries confirmed infections following Italy’s shock outbreak.
In its latest statement, WHO declared the global emergency had reached a “decisive point” following clusters in Iran, Italy and South Korea.
Covid-19 also had “pandemic potential” and could “get out of control” if countries did not act to contain it, director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said as he urged a redoubling of efforts to contain its spread.
The WHO warning came as 11 European countries confirmed infections, with a number of them traced to the sudden outbreak in Italy where even the Pope had to cancel a religious service after coming down with flu-like symptoms.
“This is not a time for fear. This is a time for taking action to prevent infection and save lives now,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.
“If you act aggressively now, you can contain this virus, you can prevent people getting sick, you can save lives.”
Dr Ghebreyesus used Italy, which has the most infections outside Asia, as an example to show the virus could spread to anywhere.
“No country should assume it won’t get cases, that would be a fatal mistake, quite literally,” he said.
“And I even say if you take Italy, a member of the G7, it was really a surprise. So even many other developed countries you also see some surprises, should expect some surprises.”
As Italy struggles to contain the rapid outbreak, recording 528 cases of infection so far, Pope Francis had to cancel a planned religious service due to a “slight ailment,” the Vatican said.
Pope Francis, aged 83, was supposed to lead a Lenten service with priests from the Rome diocese in the Basilica of St John’s in Lateran, roughly a 6km drive southeast of St Peter’s Square.
Instead, he “preferred to stay in the vicinity of Santa Marta”, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
On Wednesday, as he held his weekly audience and later led an Ash Wednesday service, he displayed the symptoms of a cold, with a coarse voice and frequent coughing.
It came amid widespread anxiety in Italy about the spread of the pneumonia-like coronavirus, which is mostly affecting northern regions and not Rome.
Schools, universities, cinemas and Milans famous La Scala opera house have been closed and several public events cancelled.
Eleven towns at the centre of the outbreak, home to a total of 55,000 people, have been quarantined. There are fears that the outbreak may tip Italy into economic recession.
Yet to report a single coronavirus case, Saudi Arabia has banned foreign pilgrims from entering the kingdom to visit Islam’s holiest sites.
The unprecedented decision could disrupt the plans of millions of faithful ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and as the annual hajj pilgrimage looms.
In a statement, Saudi’s foreign ministry also said tourist visas from around two dozen countries would be suspended.
WHO officials said they were working closely with organisers of the Tokyo Olympic Games this year and did not believe any decision would be taken soon on whether to hold the event starting in July as planned.
Separately, US stock markets fell sharply again on Friday (Australian time), in what is set to be one of the worst weeks for investors since the 2008 financial crisis.
All three of the major stock indexes experienced a 10 per cent decline from their recent high-water mark and fell into correction territory, with investors fearing the epidemic would further damage an already slowing world economy.
Australia’s state health ministers will gather in Melbourne on Friday to discuss how Australia will respond to the declaration of a global coronavirus pandemic.