BEIJING (AFP) -- China's leader said Sunday the new coronavirus epidemic is the communist country's largest-ever public health emergency, but other nations were also increasingly under pressure from the deadly outbreak's relentless global march.
Italy and Iran began introducing the sort of containment measures previously seen only in China, which has put tens of millions of people under lockdown in Hubei province, the outbreak's epicentre.
Italy reported a third death while cases spiked and the country's Venice carnival closed early.
Iran's confirmed death toll rose to eight, prompting travel bans from neighbouring countries.
The virus has so far killed more than 2,400 people, with about 80,000 infected globally, though China remains by far the worst hit.
President Xi Jinping said the epidemic was the "largest public health emergency" since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
"This is a crisis for us and it is a big test," he said during remarks carried by state television.
In a rare admission, at a meeting to coordinate the fight against the virus, Xi added that China must learn from "obvious shortcomings exposed" during its response.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has praised Beijing for its handling of the epidemic, but China has been criticized at home for silencing early warnings from a whistleblower doctor who later died from the virus.
South Korea said it was raising its alert to the highest level, after the number of infections nearly tripled over the weekend to 602.
The country now has the most infections outside of China, apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan.
South Korea reported three deaths on Sunday, taking the countrywide fatality toll to five. The Yonhap news agency later reported a sixth death.
Around half of South Korea's cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus sect in the southern city of Daegu, where thousands of members have been quarantined or asked to stay at home.
Italy's cases spiked to 152 on Sunday, including three deaths.
Virus panic crept onto catwalks, leading to the cancellation of some runway shows at Milan Fashion Week. Others were held behind closed doors and livestreamed.
Most cases are confined to the northern town of Codogno, about 70 kilometres (43 miles) southeast of Milan.
More than 50,000 people in about a dozen northern Italian towns have been told to stay home, and police set up checkpoints to enforce a blockade.
Austrian railways said traffic on a major route to Italy through the Brenner Pass would be suspended, after a train was stopped because of two suspected cases of the virus.
Neighbouring Slovenia asked vacationers returning from ski resorts in northern Italy to be particularly vigilant for symptoms.
Italy became the first European country to report one of its nationals died from the virus on Friday.
Two more fatalities came over the weekend but Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urged people "not to give in to panic", and asked them to follow the advice of health authorities.
"The rapid increase in reported cases in Italy over the past two days is of concern," World Health Organization spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said.
Not all reported cases seem to have clear epidemiological links, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case, Jasarevic added.
"At this stage, we need to focus on limiting further human to human transmission."
Iran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centres across 14 provinces following eight deaths -- the most outside East Asia.
The outbreak in the Islamic Republic surfaced Wednesday and quickly grew to 43 confirmed infections, a sudden rise that prompted regional travel restrictions.
Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian said his country will close its border with Iran and suspend flights.
Like the Italian leader, he, too, said there is no reason to panic.
But Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at Britain's University of East Anglia, said the situation in Iran has "major implications" for the Middle East.
"It is unlikely that Iran will have the resources and facilities to adequately identify cases and adequately manage them if case numbers are large," Hunter said.
Pakistan and Turkey announced the closure of land crossings with Iran while Afghanistan said it was suspending travel to the country.
The outbreak in China remains concentrated in the city of Wuhan -- locked down one month ago -- where the virus is believed to have emanated from a live animal market in December.
China's infection rate has slowed, but flip-flopping over counting methods has sown confusion over its data.
There also was growing concern over the difficulty of detecting the virus.
Japan on Sunday confirmed a woman who tested negative and disembarked from the virus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship later tested positive.
Similarly in Israel, authorities confirmed that a second Israeli citizen who returned from the ship had tested positive. They were among 11 Israelis allowed off the ship and flown home after initially testing negative.
Japan has been criticised over its handling of cases aboard the vessel quarantined off Yokohama.
A third passenger died Sunday, Japan's health ministry said, without specifying if it was as a result of the virus.
Four Britons who returned from the Diamond Princess on Saturday also tested positive for the COVID-19 illness, the NHS health service said. (AFP)