By Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields

GENEVA (Reuters) – The coronavirus outbreak can still be beaten, the World Health Organization said on Monday, insisting it was premature to declare it a pandemic even though it had the potential to reach that level.

“The key message that should give all countries hope, courage and confidence is that this virus can be contained, indeed there are many countries that have done exactly that,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva.

“Using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts but may certainly cause fear,” he added as the number of cases continued to mount internationally and financial markets spun lower.

“We must focus on containment while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic.”

Tedros said a sudden increase of cases in Italy, Iran and South Korea were “deeply concerning” but for now authorities were not seeing an uncontained global spread of the virus or witnessing widespread serious cases or deaths.

The WHO already declared a public health emergency of international concern, its “highest level of alarm”, last month when there were fewer than 100 cases outside China and 8 cases of human-to-human transmission of the COVID-19 virus that started in China.

“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has,” Tedros said. “Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”

Fears of a pandemic grew after the sharp rises in new cases reported in Iran, Italy and South Korea, although China relaxed restrictions on movement in several places including Beijing as its rates of new infections eased.

WHO emergencies program head Dr Mike Ryan said: “With regard to Iran, again, a little like was originally the case in China, we need to be very careful in the first wave of infections in any newly affected country, because we may only be detecting severe cases and the deaths would be over-represented.”

The Geneva-based WHO declared the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak a pandemic, which turned out to be mild, leading to some criticism after pharmaceutical companies rushed development of vaccines and drugs.

WHO declared the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, in December a public health emergency of international concern, known as a PHEIC, on Jan. 30. The designation, which remains in place, was aimed at helping countries with weaker health systems shore up their defense, especially in Africa.

China has reported a total of 77,362 cases of COVID-19 and 2,618 deaths. Outside China there are now 2,074 cases in 28 countries and 23 deaths, according to WHO figures.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alex Richardson and Mark Heinrich)