The number of new coronavirus cases outside China was almost 9 times higher than that inside the country over the last 24 hours, World Health Organization officials said Monday.
As epidemics spread across other continents, new cases in China are falling, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing at the agency's headquarters in Geneva. It reported just 206 new cases of the coronavirus, COVID-19, on Sunday, the lowest number of new cases in that country since Jan. 22, he said.
Outside China, the total number of cases now tops 8,739 across 61 countries, including 127 deaths, Tedros said. About 81% of cases outside China are from four countries, he added.
"The epidemics in the Republic of Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are our greatest concern," Tedros said, adding that world health officials arrived in Iran on Monday to deliver supplies and support. "This is a unique virus, with unique features. This virus is not influenza. We are in uncharted territory."
Of the other 57 affected countries, 38 have reported 10 cases or fewer, Tedros said. Nineteen countries have reported only one case, and some countries have contained the virus and haven't reported in the last two weeks, he said.
Tedros said health officials would not "hesitate" to declare the outbreak a pandemic if "that's what the evidence suggests." On Friday at a press briefing, he said that most cases of COVID-19 can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases and there isn't any "evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities." That's one reason why WHO hasn't declared the outbreak a pandemic, Tedros said Friday.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's health emergencies program, said Monday scientists still don't know exactly how COVID-19 "behaves," saying it's not like influenza. "We know it's not transmitting in exactly the same way that influenza was, and that offers us a glimmer, a chink of light, that this virus can be suppressed and pushed and contained," he said.
Ryan also said health officials do not think countries aren't being transparent, saying, "It's very easy to be caught unaware in an epidemic situation."
WHO officials Friday increased the risk assessment of the coronavirus to "high" to "very high" at a global level. The world can still avoid "the worst of it," but the increased risk assessment means the WHO's "level of concern is at its highest," Ryan said at the time.
On Wednesday, WHO officials said the number of new COVID-19 cases outside China exceeded those inside the country for the first time. Tedros said Thursday that countries must act "swiftly" and "aggressively" to contain the virus.
Health officials have said the respiratory disease is capable of spreading through human-to-human contact, droplets carried through sneezing and coughing and germs left on inanimate objects. The virus appears to be particularly troublesome for older people and those with underlying health conditions, health officials have said. Symptoms can include a sore throat, runny nose, fever or pneumonia and can progress all the way to multiple organ failure or death in some severe cases, they said.