'Fatal mistake' for countries to assume they won't get coronavirus - WHO chief

GENEVA (Reuters) - It would be a "fatal mistake" for any country to assume it will not be hit by the new coronavirus, and rich countries that might have thought they were safer should expect surprises, the head of the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

The head of the WHO's emergency program said Iran, which has so far reported the most deaths outside of China, may be dealing with an outbreak that is worse than yet understood. He also said discussions were being held with organizers about the fate of the Olympic games scheduled for July in Japan.

"No country should assume it won't get cases, that would be a fatal mistake, quite literally," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

"And I even say if you take Italy, a member of the G7, it was really a surprise. So even many other developed countries you also see some surprises, should expect some surprises."

Tedros said epidemics in Iran, Italy and South Korea were at a "decisive point": still marked by clusters of infections with some transmission in communities, but not yet by sustained community transmission.

The WHO declared the outbreak an international emergency on Jan. 30 and has been urging countries to ready screening, isolation wards, and public education campaigns.

"This virus has pandemic potential," Tedros said. "This is not a time for fear. This is a time for taking action to prevent infection and save lives now."

He said U.S. President Donald Trump was right in suggesting hygienic measures similar to those to prevent flu, such as frequent hand washing.

Iran said on Thursday its death toll from coronavirus had risen to 26 and the total number of infected people now stood at 245, the highest number of deaths from the virus outside China.

Asked about Iran's nearly 10% death rate among known cases, Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO's emergencies program, said it was an indication that the disease might have spread further in Iran than revealed in the official figures.

"The most likely factor is obviously this disease came unseen and undetected into Iran, the extent of infection may be broader than we think," he said.

"I don't suspect it has anything to do with clinical care, more to do with surveillance," he said, adding that so far more severe cases had been detected, while milder cases would follow.

Ryan said the WHO was working closely with organizers of the Tokyo Olympic Games and did not believe any decision would be taken soon on whether to hold the event starting in July as planned.

"Everyone is working together to try to preserve what is a fantastically important global event," he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)