The world should do more to prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.
However, the WHO said it was too early to call the outbreak a pandemic but countries should be “in a phase of preparedness”.
A pandemic is when an infectious disease spreads easily from person to person in many parts of the world.
More cases of respiratory disease Covid-19 continue to emerge with outbreaks in South Korea, Italy and Iran causing concern.
However, most infections are in China, the original source of the virus, where 77,000 people have the disease and nearly 2,600 have died. The number of new cases there is now falling.
More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in about 30 other countries and there have been more than 20 deaths. Italy reported four more deaths on February 24, raising the total there to seven.
Worldwide stock markets saw sharp falls because of concerns about the economic impact of the virus.
China said it would postpone the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March, to “continue the efforts” against the coronavirus.
The meeting, which approves decisions made by the Communist Party, has taken place every year since 1978.
The proportion of infected people who die from Covid-19 appears to be between 1% and 2%, although the WHO cautions that the mortality rate is not known yet.
On February 24, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain reported their first cases, all involving people who had come from Iran. Officials in Bahrain said the patient infected there was a school bus driver, and several schools had been closed as a result.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the WHO, told reporters on February 24 that the number of new cases in recent days in Iran, Italy and South Korea was “deeply concerning”.
However he added: “For the moment we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large scale severe disease or deaths.
“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
“The key message that should give all countries hope, courage and confidence is that this virus can be contained, indeed there are many countries that have done exactly that,” he added.
“Using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts but may certainly cause fear.”
However, Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program, said now was the time to make “do everything you would do to prepare for a pandemic”.