New Delhi: The new coronavirus outbreak can now be characterised as a pandemic, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was alarmed by the spread and severity of the outbreak, along with a lack of action taken to combat it.
"We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic," he told a news conference in Geneva, adding that he expected the number of cases and deaths to grow in the coming days and weeks.
"We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus," he said.
India, meanwhile, on Wednesday announced it would suspend most tourist visas, except a few categories such as diplomatic and employment, till April 15 in a bid to contain the spread of coronavirus. The suspension will come into effect from 12pm GMT (5.30pm IST) on March 13 at the port of departure.
It was not clear if the ban would include short-term business visas, though the advisory from the government said anyone with a "compelling reason" to travel to the country could contact their nearest Indian mission. It also urged Indian nationals to avoid all non-essential travel abroad, in one of the most far-reaching advisories since the outbreak began in late December.
With 10 new cases being reported on Wednesday, the total number of patients in India has risen to 60. However, as per state health officials, the number of confirmed cases maybe up to 65.
Among the fresh cases reported, eight were from Kerala and one each from Delhi and Rajasthan since Tuesday, said the Union Health Ministry, giving a state-wise breakup which included five (Delhi), nine (Uttar Pradesh), four (Karnataka) and two in Ladakh.
While the ministry maintained there are two confirmed cases of the infection in Maharashtra, the state health officials put the number at seven.
Rajasthan, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab have reported one case each, said the ministry, adding Kerala has till now reported 17 cases, including the three patients who were discharged last month following recovery. The total number of 60 confirmed cases includes 16 Italians tourists, the ministry said.
India has also closed its border with neighbouring Myanmar to counter the coronavirus outbreak, as countries across South Asia reported a rise in cases on Wednesday. No cases have so far been confirmed in Myanmar.
"As a precautionary measure (to prevent) transmission of coronavirus/COVID-19, the international border with Myanmar has been closed... until further orders," said Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh in a tweet on Tuesday. The northeastern state shares a border with Myanmar.
The coronavirus, which emerged in China in December, has spread around the world, halting industry, bringing flights to a standstill, closing schools and forcing the postponement of sporting events and concerts.
The WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, its "highest level of alarm", on January 30 when there were fewer than 100 cases of COVID-19 outside China and eight cases of human-to-human transmission of the disease.
Now there are more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people have died, Tedros said, with the numbers expected to climb.
The WHO no longer has a category for declaring a pandemic, except for influenza.
WHO officials have signalled for weeks that they may use the word "pandemic" as a descriptive term but stressed that it does not carry legal significance. The novel coronavirus is not the flu.
Under its previous system, the Geneva-based agency declared the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak a pandemic. It turned out to be mild, leading to some criticism after pharmaceutical companies rushed development of vaccines and drugs.
(With inputs from agencies)