The head of the World Health Organization warned Thursday that the coronavirus outbreak outside China is now the world’s “greatest concern.”
Despite a decline in the number of new cases in China for the second straight day, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at his daily briefing in Geneva, “It’s what’s happening in the rest of the world that’s now our greatest concern.”
The WHO director-general said the global community is “at a decisive point,” but “If you acted aggressively now, you can contain the virus. You can prevent people getting sick. You can save lives.”
Health officials around the globe are focused on what measures they can take to stop the spread of a coronavirus that has infected at least 82,000 people in more than 40 countries since it emerged in China in late December.
The United States and South Korea called off joint military drills, and the U.S. issued a new travel warning advising its citizens to avoid going to South Korea, which has reported the most cases outside of China so far.
South Korean health officials said Thursday there were 505 more cases, increasing its total to 1,766.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for schools to close for several weeks, following government calls for people to avoid large gatherings, and decisions by sports leagues to either cancel events or hold games with no spectators in order to try to prevent the virus from spreading.
Japan has about 200 cases, not counting the more than 700 cases from a cruise ship that has been quarantined for weeks in Yokohama.
Saudi Arabia, which has not reported any coronavirus infections, announced a ban on foreign pilgrims entering the country to visit Islam's holiest sites “to prevent the arrival of the new coronavirus to the kingdom and its spread,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his government was initiating an emergency response plan in reaction to what he said was "an abundance of caution," but also a belief that the outbreak would reach the status of a global pandemic.
"Based on the expert medical advice we have received, there is every indication that the world will soon enter a pandemic phase of the coronavirus," Morrison said.
France's President Emmanuel Macron made a visit Thursday to a Paris hospital where a man died from the virus this week. He expressed support for health care workers, and said, "We know we are only at the beginning."
In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned against discrimination linked to the virus.
"The coronavirus epidemic has set off a disturbing wave of prejudice against people of Chinese and East Asian ethnicity, and I call on member states to do their most to combat this and other forms of discrimination."
In the United States, there is new concern about a potential case of the virus spreading to a person who has no known travel history to a country with an ongoing outbreak or to someone known to be infected.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that case late Wednesday involving a person in the state of California. CDC officials had said it was a matter of when, not if, the coronavirus would spread inside the country.
President Donald Trump held a news conference late Wednesday expressing confidence in the government's readiness to respond.“
Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We’re ready to adapt and ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads. If it spreads.”
Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would lead government efforts to contain the virus, citing his previous experience as a lawmaker and a governor. “
He’s got a certain talent for this,” Trump declared.
When Pence was governor of the Midwestern state of Indiana in 2015, the state experienced its worst-ever HIV outbreak. Pence drew criticism for his response to the crisis, as he declared a public state of emergency two months after the beginning of the outbreak.
The focus of the outbreak has shifted from being dominated by the cases in China, which still accounts for the vast majority of reported cases and deaths, to those outside the country. This week marked the first time in which the number of new cases elsewhere outnumbered those in China.
China reported 433 new cases Thursday, another consecutive decline, raising the total to 78,630, according to WHO.
WHO said there were a total of 3,474 cases and 54 deaths reported Thursday in 44 other countries.
Tedros said Wednesday that governments need to remain vigilant, even if they see a reduction in cases. He pointed to successes in 14 countries that have not reported any new cases in more than a week, and nine that have gone more than two weeks without a new case.
"The primary objective of all countries with cases must be to contain the virus," Tedros said.
He highlighted the "deeply concerning" expansion of cases in Italy and Iran, which have each been linked to cases spreading onward to other countries.
Iranian health officials released new figures Thursday showing a sharp rise to 245 cases, with 26 deaths.
Meanwhile, Denmark reported its first case Thursday, involving a man who returned from a trip to Italy.
That followed the first reported case in Brazil, the first in Latin America, also involving someone who had been in Italy.
Some of the other countries to join the list of those with confirmed cases are Romania, Greece, Norway and Pakistan.