Expressing alarm both about mounting infections and slow government responses, the World Health Organization declared Wednesday that the global coronavirus crisis is now a pandemic but also said it's not too late for countries to act.

By reversing course and using the charged word "pandemic" that it had previously shied away from, the U.N. health agency appeared to want to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.

"We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief.

"All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response," he said. "We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction."

The WHO added that Iran and Italy are the new front lines of the battle against the virus that started in China.

"They're suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon," said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief.

Italy weighed imposing even tighter restrictions on daily life and announced billions in financial relief Wednesday to cushion economic shocks from the coronavirus, its latest efforts to adjust to the fast-evolving health crisis that silenced the usually bustling heart of the Catholic faith, St. Peter's Square.

In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice president and two other Cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Iran reported another jump in deaths, by 62 to 354 — behind only China and Italy.

In Italy, Premier Giuseppe Conte said he would consider requests from Lombardy, Italy's hardest-hit region, to toughen the already extraordinary anti-virus lockdown that was extended nationwide Tuesday. Lombardy wants to shut down nonessential businesses and reduce public transportation.

These additional measures would be on top of travel and social restrictions that imposed an eerie hush on cities and towns across the country from Tuesday. Police enforced rules that customers stay 1 meter (3 feet) apart and ensured that businesses closed by 6 p.m.

Milan shopkeeper Claudia Sabbatini said she favored stricter measures. Rather than run the risk of customers possibly infecting each other in her children's clothing store, she decided to close it.

"I cannot have people standing at a distance. Children must try on the clothes. We have to know if they will fit,'' she said.

Conte said fighting Italy's more than 10,000 infections — the biggest outbreak outside of China — must not come at the expense of civil liberties. His caution suggested that Italy is unlikely to adopt the draconian quarantine measures that helped China push down new infections from thousands per day to a trickle now and allowed its manufacturers to restart production lines.

China's new worry is that the coronavirus could re-enter from abroad. Beijing's city government announced that all overseas visitors will be quarantined for 14 days. Of 24 new cases that China reported Wednesday, five arrived from Italy and one from the United States. China has had over 81,000 virus infections and over 3,000 deaths.

For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 121,000 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,300 have died.

But the vast majority of people recover. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

For the global economy, virus repercussions were profound, with increasing concerns of wealth- and job-wrecking recessions. U.S. stocks sank again in early trading Wednesday, wiping out most of a huge rally from a day earlier as Wall Street continues to reel from worries about the coronavirus.

The Wall Street plunge followed a steep decline by markets across Asia, where governments there and elsewhere have announced billions of dollars in stimulus funds, including packages revealed in Japan on Tuesday and Australia on Wednesday.

Italy's government announced Wednesday it was earmarking 25 billion euros (nearly $28 billion) to boost anti-virus efforts and soften economic blows, including delaying tax and mortgage payments by families and businesses.

In the U.S., the caseload passed 1,000, and outbreaks on both sides of the country stirred alarm.

Dozens of cases have been tied to a conference in Boston, and leaders in multiple states were announcing curbs on large events. Colleges emptied their classrooms as they moved to online instruction and uncertainty surrounded the upcoming opening of the major league baseball season and college basketball's championships. Even the famed buffets of Las Vegas were affected, with some of the Strip's biggest being closed as a precaution.

___

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Follow live updates from verified social media sources

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.