(Adds Ryan comments, updates markets)
* Britain, Italy try to mitigate impact of virus
* U.S. considering new steps to fight outbreak
* First virus hotbed Wuhan slowly getting back to business
* WHO officials says situation in Iran “very serious”
By Emma Farge and William Schomberg
GENEVA/LONDON, March 11 (Reuters) – The World Health Organization described the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic for the first time on Wednesday, and Britain and Italy showed growing concern about the economic impact by announcing multi-billion-dollar war chests to fight the disease.
The United States also said it was considering new steps to battle the virus that emerged in China in December and has spread around the world, halting industry, grounding flights, closing schools and forcing events to be postponed.
“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.
“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic,” he said, using the formal name of the coronavirus.
There are now more than 118,000 infections in 114 countries and 4,291 people have died of the virus, with the numbers expected to climb, Tedros said.
The number of cases outside China rose 13-fold in the past two weeks, and the number of countries affected tripled, with Iran and Italy the worst-hit countries in the Middle East and Europe. There have been 354 deaths in Iran and 827 in Italy.
“Italy and Iran are in the frontline and are suffering but other countries will be in that situation very soon,” Tedros said.
Use of the word pandemic does not change the WHO’s response, said Dr Mike Ryan, the head of the Geneva-based agency’s emergencies programme.
He also said there was “a strong element of controllability” and “a real chance to blunt the curve… and reduce the number of cases”.
Use of the word “pandemic” carries no legal significance. The WHO classified the outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30, triggering an increase in the coordination of the global response.
“The use of this term however highlights the importance of countries throughout the world working cooperatively and openly with one another and coming together as a united front in our efforts to bring this situation under control,” said Nathalie MacDermott, an expert at King’s College London.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Britain’s Edinburgh University, added: “It is now clear that COVID-19 is going to be with us for a considerable length of time and the actions that we take must be actions that we can live with for a prolonged period.”
Britain launched a 30-billion-pound ($38.54 billion) economic stimulus plan as new finance minister Rishi Sunak said the economy faced a “significant impact” from the spread of the virus, even if it was likely to be temporary.
“Up to a fifth of the working-age population could need to be off work at any one time. And business supply chains are being disrupted around the globe,” Sunak said in an annual budget speech to parliament.
He announced measures to help companies facing a cash-flow crunch, and said the health system and other public services would receive an extra 5 billion pounds to help counter the spread of the coronavirus.
Italy is in already in lockdown and close to recession, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte earmarked $28.3 billion to ease the economic impact.
He said restrictions on movement might be tightened further after the northern region of Lombardy, home to Italy’s financial capital Milan, asked for all shops to shut and public transport to close.
Steps against the virus in the United States may include tax relief that could channel hundreds of billions of dollars into the U.S. economy. New restrictions on travellers from Europe are also under consideration, potentially mirroring the ban on foreigners who visited China in the prior two weeks coming to the United States, which was later extended to Iran, sources familiar with discussions said.
“Bottom line, it’s going to get worse,” Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress.
GOING BACK TO WORK IN WUHAN
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said up to 70% of the population was likely to be infected as the virus spreads around the world in the absence of a cure.
A rebound in stocks ran out of steam on Wednesday despite the Bank of England move. Money markets are fully pricing in a further 10 basis-point cut by the European Central Bank when it meets on Thursday.
Oil prices fell further, the dollar weakened and global equities markets slid again as hopes of government stimulus to tackle the coronavirus faded.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 5.25%, the S&P 500 was down 4.85%.
But not all the news was bad. Some key industries in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicentre of the epidemic and a hub of car manufacturing, were told they could resume work on Wednesday. ($1 = 0.8865 euros) ($1 = 0.7783 pounds)
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