25/02/2020 7:57 AM IST

World Should Prepare For Potential Coronavirus Pandemic: WHO

The World Health Organization's director-general said the focus needs to be on containing COVID-19.

The World Health Organization on Monday declined to declare the new coronavirus a global pandemic but urged all countries to prepare for one.

“We must focus on containment while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom.

“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has,” he said. “Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”

A pandemic classification would indicate a global outbreak of the virus, named COVID-19. As of Monday, it has infected at least 79,331 people in 29 countries outside of China, its place of origin, according to WHO.

Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization, speaking at a news conference in Beijing on Monday.

Iran’s Health Ministry has reported 12 deaths as of Monday, making it the country with the most deaths outside of China. Meanwhile, Italy has become Europe’s hardest-hit country, with six deaths and 229 people infected nationwide, health officials said Monday.

The number of people infected with the virus in the U.S. grew from 34 on Friday to 53 on Monday. This rise follows 39 people who tested positive for the virus being flown back to the U.S. from Asia on State Department-chartered flights and quarantined.

At this time, the disease is isolated in the U.S. and the chances of contracting the new coronavirus are low, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said. However, more cases in the U.S. are likely to be identified in the coming days. 

People wearing masks walk across a street in Hong Kong on Monday. COVID-19 has sickened thousands of people throughout China and other countries since December.

Tedros outlined three priorities to prevent the epidemic from progressing: protecting health workers; protecting those who are at most risk, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions; and protecting countries that are the most vulnerable by containing the epidemic.

“This is a shared threat. We can only face it together, and we can only overcome it together,” he said. “Alone, we lose. Together, we win.”

Tourists wearing sanitary masks walk in downtown Milan, Italy, on Sunday. The country has reported Europe's largest number of cases of COVID-19.

The flu remains a greater health threat than COVID-19. It has killed at least 16,000 of the 29 million people sickened by the virus in the U.S. between Oct. 1 and Feb. 15, according to the CDC.