'It's not a question of if': Terrifying new shift in global coronavirus spread

A majority of new coronavirus cases are now outside China as global health authorities say a global pandemic is inevitable.

Asia has reported hundreds of new coronavirus cases, including the first US soldier to be infected, as the United States warned of an inevitable pandemic, and outbreaks in Italy and Iran spread to more countries.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2700, the vast majority in China.

Adding to a growing sense a rapid spread of the virus in more places is unstoppable, a top World Health Organisation (WHO) official urged that preparations be made now.

In the United States, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also urged Americans to prepare, saying that while the immediate risk there was low, the global situation suggested a pandemic was likely.

"It's not a question of if. It's a question of when and how many people will be infected," the CDC's principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, said on Tuesday.

The US has reported 57 cases of the virus.

There are more news cases outside of China as the World Health Organisation warns of the coming pandemic. Source: AP

Dr Bruce Aylward, head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva that preparations should not wait.

"Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don't think that way, you're not going to be ready," he said.

Dr Aylward said China's "extraordinary mobilisation" to handle the outbreak showed how an aggressive public health policy, including large quarantines, could curb its spread.

Nearly 50 deaths outside China

China's National Health Commission reported another 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2715.

South Korea, which with 1146 cases has the most outside China, reported 169 new ones including a US soldier, as authorities readied an ambitious plan to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the centre of the outbreak.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics even though officials have repeatedly denied the Games will be affected.

There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 11 in Italy and 16 in Iran, the most outside China, according to a Reuters tally.

Iran's deputy health minister – seen mopping his brow at a televised news conference – was among the infected.

Cases linked to Iran have been reported across the region.

Kuwait said it had two new coronavirus cases, among people returning from Iran, taking its tally to 11, while Bahrain said its infections had risen to 26 after three new ones on a flight from Iran.

In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians or people who had recently visited the country have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one in Spain's Canary Islands, were also locked down after cases emerged linked to Italy. Spain also reported its first three cases on the mainland.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around February 2 after authorities isolated central Hubei province and imposed other extreme containment measures that have paralysed the world's second-biggest economy.

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