The number of new coronavirus cases being officially reported outside China has overtaken those reported by Beijing for the first time since the outbreak began, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.
According to WHO, 427 cases were reported by 37 countries on Tuesday, compared with 411 by the Chinese authorities.
While 96.5% of the total number of 80,980 cases reported so far are in China, the latest figures on new infections suggest Beijing’s strict response to the crisis is paying off.
The virus has killed 2,715 people and infected more than 78,000 in China. There were a further 52 deaths inside the country reported on Wednesday – the lowest in three weeks – with no fatalities outside the centre of the outbreak in Hubei province.
China’s national health commission also reported a drop in the number of new infections to 406, with only five outside Hubei. In the rest of the world there have been more than 40 deaths and 2,700 cases.
On Wednesday, Beijing’s health commissioner announced that the capital would quarantine people for 14 days at home or in groups if they have been to countries seriously affected by the coronavirus.
However, the number of cases in Italy, Iran and South Korea is continuing to rise – a trend that the WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described as “deeply concerning”.
The virus has proliferated in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East in recent days, with the death toll rising in Iran, infections in South Korea passing 1,200 and the first Latin American case reportedly confirmed in Brazil – even as the number of deaths and fresh cases decline at the centre of the outbreak of the disease in China.
Despite the disease’s spread, Tedros once again warned against rushing to declare a pandemic.
“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems,” he said on Wednesday. “It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.”
Tedros said a WHO mission would travel to Iran at the weekend, where 19 people have died and 139 others have been infected by the virus.
South Korea reported 284 new infections on Wednesday, raising the total to 1,261 – by far the highest outside China – while an 11th person died.
Ninety per cent of the new infections in South Korea were in Daegu and the neighbouring province of North Gyeongsang. Seoul has announced plans to introduce “maximum measures” to contain the coronavirus, including plans to test about 200,000 members of a secretive church believed to be at the centre of the country’s outbreak.
Italy, meanwhile, has reported 374 cases and 10 deaths. Authorities have locked down 11 towns and ordered Serie A football games to be played to empty stadiums.
Croatia, Austria and Switzerland reported their first cases on Tuesday, while Greece reported its first on Wednesday.
In France, a second person infected with the coronavirus died late on Tuesday, according to the country’s health ministry. The death was one of three new cases in France this week, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 17. A Chinese tourist who had tested positive for the virus died earlier this month.
Ten cases of the virus have been detected across Spain in the past 36 hours and hundreds of guests and workers remain in quarantine in a hotel in Tenerife after four Italian guests tested positive for coronavirus.
Speaking in Italy on Wednesday morning, WHO’s Europe director said that while the virus was being taken very seriously, people needed to remain calm and keep things in perspective.
“We should keep in mind the principle of proportionality – we look and assess the risks objectively and then formulate the response,” said Hans Kluge.
“We take the virus and the situation very seriously. At the same time, we should also remember that four out of five patients have mild symptoms and recover. The mortality [rate] is about 2% now – 1% in China – and it’s mainly affecting people over 65 with weakened immunity and who have other diseases at the same time.”
Dr Stella Kyriakides, the EU commissioner for health and food safety, described the outbreak as “a test case for existing global emergency response mechanisms” as well as EU co-operation.
She stressed the need for real-time information sharing and said all member states had been asked to review their pandemic plans and healthcare capabilities, especially when it came to diagnosis, laboratory testing and contact-tracing procedures.
Kyriakides said that while the EU was in the “containment phase” of the virus it had to be ready for a rise in cases. The commissioner also welcomed the support of those European ministers who had said that borders should remain open, adding that it was not the time for “what could … be considered disproportionate and ineffective measures”.
Issuing a further call for calm, Kyriakides urged people to seek out reliable sources of information on the virus and avoid those trying to use the outbreak to further their own agendas. “This is a situation of concern but we must not give in to panic,” she said.
“We must also be vigilant when it comes to misinformation and disinformation as well as xenophobic statements, which are misleading citizens and putting into question the works of public authorities.”