By Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland
GENEVA/LONDON, Feb 21 (Reuters) – The window of opportunity to contain wider international spread of the epidemic of the new coronavirus disease is closing, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Friday, after cases were reported in Iran and Lebanon.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, asked whether the outbreak is at a “tipping point” after new cases and deaths in Iran from COVID-19, and cases in Lebanon and Canada, said that he still believed the virus spread could be stopped.
“Although the window of opportunity is narrowing to contain the outbreak, we still have a chance to contain it,” he said.
“If we don’t, if we squander the opportunity, then there will be a serious problem on our hands,” he said.
China has reported more than 75,500 cases and 2,239 deaths, Tedros said. He voiced concern about an increase in infections in the northern province of Shandong – where more than 200 cases were announced earlier in prisons – and said it was seeking more information.
Twenty-six other countries have reported 1,151 cases and eight deaths.
“Although the total number of cases outside China remains relatively small, we are concerned about the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case,” he said.
He said it was “very concerning” that Iran had reported 18 cases and four deaths in just the past two days, adding that the WHO was supplying testing kits to Tehran.
Tedros, asked whether sanctions imposed on Iran for its nuclear programme might hamper delivery of medical aid, said: “Emergency situations are excluded.”
Lebanon confirmed its first coronavirus case on Friday and said it was monitoring two other potential cases after a 45-year-old woman arriving from the holy city of Qom in Iran on Thursday tested positive, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said.
Dr. Sylvie Briand, director of WHO global infectious hazard preparedness, referring to Iran, said: “The concern is more about the fact that we seen an increase in cases, a very rapid increase in a matter of a few days…What is the extent of this outbreak and the transmission in Iran?
“Also because we have seen other cases picked up in Lebanon and Canada, so we are just wondering also about the potential of more exported cases in the coming days.”
There are different patterns of transmission in different places, Briand said, adding: “We have lots of diversity, different outbreaks showing different phases.”
Tedros said that a WHO-led team of international experts and their Chinese counterparts would visit Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic, on Saturday. The full team, which arrived in China last weekend, includes experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
(Reporting by Kate Kelland in London and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, editing by Nick Macfie and Cynthia Osterman)