The coronavirus' rapid spread in Iran, Italy, South Korea and elsewhere left alarmed governments and people across the globe rushing on Thursday to implement emergency measures.
For the first time, new infections around the world in the past 24 hours surpassed those in mainland China, where the flu-like disease emerged two months ago but is on the decline after an aggressive containment campaign.
In Japan, where cases rose to 200, there was particular concern after a female tour bus guide tested positive for a second time - one of very few worldwide to do so.
Tokyo has halted big gatherings and sports events for two weeks, and is closing schools early for the spring break. But it still plans to go ahead with the 2020 Olympics, whose cancellation or relocation would be a massive blow for Japan.
The coronavirus has mainly battered China, causing 78,596 cases and 2,746 deaths. But it has spread to another 44 countries with 3,246 cases and 51 deaths reported.
Though meeting the dictionary definition of a pandemic - widespread contagion across a large region - the World Health Organisation (WHO) has so far held back from using that term.
"There is every indication that the world will soon enter a pandemic phase of the coronavirus," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said as he ordered hospitals to ensure sufficient medical supplies, protective gear and staff.
US President Donald Trump put his vice president, Mike Pence, in charge of America's response, while France's President Emmanuel Macron rallied the nation.
"We have a crisis before us. An epidemic is on its way," Macron said at a Paris hospital where a 60-year-old Frenchman this week became the second person to die from the coronavirus in France.
MARKETS DOWN FOR SIXTH DAY
Spooked by the impact on China, the world's second-biggest economy and the heart of corporate supply chains, and the increasing effect on other countries, stock markets sank deeper into the red and oil prices fell.
Global markets have dropped for six straight days, wiping out more than $3.6 trillion in value. <.MIWD00000PUS>
A rash of countries have had their first cases in recent days, the latest being Denmark with a man back from a ski holiday in Italy, and Estonia with someone returning from Iran.
There is no cure for the virus that can lead to pneumonia, and a vaccine may take up to 18 months to develop.
New cases in South Korea took its total to 1,261 with 12 deaths, while Europe's hotspot Italy had 453 infections and 12 deaths, and Iran reported 245 cases and 26 fatalities.
Urging people to avoid unnecessary travel, Tehran extended its closure of cinemas, cultural events and conferences for another week. Iran's outbreak has added to the isolation of a nation already under US sanctions.
The coronavirus has played havoc with global aviation and tourism as airlines cancel flights, countries ban visitors from hot spots and nervous passengers put off travel.
News that a Korean Air <003490.KS> flight attendant who worked on flights between Seoul and Los Angeles later tested positive was likely to unnerve passengers further.
The United States is managing 59 cases - most of them Americans repatriated from a cruise ship quarantined in Japan where almost 700 cases developed. But Trump said the risk was "very low" in the United States which was "very, very ready".
Chinese authorities said the number of new deaths stood at 29 on Thursday, its lowest daily tally since Jan. 28. There were just 433 new cases in mainland China in the last 24 hours, compared to 586 in nations and territories elsewhere.