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WHO raises coronavirus threat assessment to highest level

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday increased its coronavirus risk assessment to "very high" and warned foreign governments not to underestimate the threat.

Cases of the coronavirus have continued to spread outside China, but WHO officials said there is still a chance of containing the virus if action is taken quickly.

“The continued increase in the number of cases, and the number of affected countries over the last few days, are clearly of concern,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday.

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In the past 24 hours, China reported 329 cases — the lowest number in more than a month. Still, the country has reported nearly 79,000 total cases of the virus to WHO, including 2,791 deaths.

Outside China, the WHO said there are now 4,351 cases in 49 countries, and 67 deaths.

Since Thursday, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Netherlands and Nigeria have all reported their first cases. All these cases have links to Italy.

Still, Tedros said there is still a chance at isolating and containing the coronavirus.

“We do not see evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities,” he said. “As long as that’s the case, we still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts.”

The WHO hasn’t declared the outbreak a pandemic yet, and Tedros said fear remains the biggest risk to the public.

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“Our greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself. It’s fear, rumors and stigma. And our greatest assets are facts, reason and solidarity,” he said.

Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said the rapid spread of the virus should be a wake-up call for the world.

Ryan said the WHO is not trying to alarm people but to get countries to pay attention.

“It's really not much of an excuse at this point to get caught unawares. We've been dealing with this virus for two months now,” Ryan said.

“This is a reality check for every government on the planet: wake up, get ready, this virus may be on its way and you need to be ready. You have a duty to your citizens, you have a duty to the world to be ready,” he said.