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More countries infected with COVID-19 as WHO warns it has 'pandemic potential'

A Chinese man walks past a closed toy store as the threat of the deadly coronavirus (Covid-19) spreading in Beijing continues on Thursday. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A Chinese man walks past a closed toy store as the threat of the deadly coronavirus (Covid-19) spreading in Beijing continues on Thursday. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Belarus, Lithuania, New Zealand and Nigeria on Friday confirmed their first infections of the deadly coronavirus as the World Health Organization warned countries without a confirmed case of COVID-19 to prepare for its arrival or pay the consequences.

"No country should assume it won't get cases," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "That could be a fatal mistake, quite literally. This virus does not respect borders."

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Ghebreyesus made the comment Thursday after at least nine countries confirmed first infections.

However, the organization's head doctor continued to reiterate the WHO's reluctance to call the virus' spread a pandemic as doing so may fuel fear by signaling the outbreak cannot be contained.

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The term has "no tangible benefit" and can unnecessarily amplify stigma and paralyze systems, he said.

The WHO on Thursday issued a joint statement with the United Nations World Tourism Organization clarifying it has not made any recommendations to restrict travel or trade as several countries have implemented measures to bar entrance of those from the most infected countries such as South Korea, whose more than 2,000 cases has prompted at least 52 countries to either prohibit travels from the Asian nation or increase screening.

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"We are in a fight that can be won if we do the right things," Ghebreyesus said. "Of course, we will not hesitate to use the word 'pandemic' if it is an accurate description of the situation."

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He said 14 countries that have reported cases have not recorded a new patient in more than a week and nine have no new cases in more than two weeks. And China, the epicenter of the outbreak, is reporting fewer and fewer cases, particularly outside Hubei province where the virus emerged in early December.

However, he described the virus as having "pandemic potential."

The past few days have seen Estonia, Denmark, Georgia, Greece, Norway and Pakistan confirm first cases as well as Brazil, signaling that the virus has landed on every continent but Antarctica.

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And on Friday, Belarus, Lithuania, New Zealand and Nigeria added their names to the list of more than 50 countries and territories that have recorded at least one infection of COVID-19.

Belarus confirmed its first case Thursday, an Iranian student who arrived in the country by plane from Baku, Azerbaijan, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

"The young man feels satisfactory," the ministry said, adding the patient and anyone else who came in close contact with him have been quarantined at the Minsk Infectious Disease Hospital.

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Following the confirmation, the Ministry ordered those who have entered Belarus from Iran, Italy and South Korea after Feb. 20 to be tested for the coronavirus.

Lithuania announced that its first patient was a female who had returned Monday from Verona, Italy, a country that has seen its number of confirmed cases skyrocket to 650 in the last few days.

The patient has been hospitalized in isolation and is suffering from mild symptoms, the Lithuania Ministry of Health said in a statement.

Three family members of the patient are being closely monitored at the hospital and so far have not displayed any symptoms of the virus.

"Despite the efforts made and the proactive preventive measures that we took among the first, we regret to declare that Lithuania did not avoid the coronavirus," Minister of Health Aurelijus Veryga said. "We were well aware that the threat existed, and we were actively getting ready for this scenario."

New Zealand confirmed its first case, stating "we knew the likelihood of an imported case in New Zealand was high. However, the likelihood of a widespread outbreak is low-moderate."

And Nigeria said in a statement Friday it became the first sub-Saharan African nation and the third on the continent to record an infection of the disease.

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The case was confirmed in an Italian citizen who works in Nigeria and returned to Lagos, the country's largest city with a population of about 20 million, from Milan on Tuesday. He was in stable condition, authorities said.

"I wish to assure all Nigerians that we have been beefing up our preparedness capabilities since the first confirmation of cases in China, and we will use all the resources made available by the government to respond to this case," said Health Minister Osagie Ehanire.

As the virus spreads across the globe, its first host, China, continued on Friday to experience reassuring figures showing the coronavirus is slowing within its borders.

China's National Health Commission released its daily update Friday for the previous 24 hours stating 44 deaths and 452 new cases, relatively on par with the past few days.

Since the outbreak began, China has confirmed 78,824 cases of the disease and 2,788 deaths.

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