The coronavirus outbreak has been labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold over the past two weeks.
He said he was “deeply concerned” by “alarming levels of inaction” over the virus.
A pandemic is a disease that is spreading in multiple countries around the world at the same time.
However, Dr Tedros said that calling the outbreak a pandemic did not mean the WHO was changing its advice about what countries should do.
He called on governments to change the course of the outbreak by taking “urgent and aggressive action”.
“Several countries have demonstrated that this virus can be suppressed and controlled,” he said.
“The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can do the same – it’s whether they will.”
Governments had to “strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing disruption and respecting human life”.
“We’re in this together to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable,” he said.
Earlier, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that up to 70% of the country’s population – some 58 million people – could contract the coronavirus.
She said since there was no known cure, the focus would fall on slowing the spread of the virus. “It’s about winning time,” she said.
Some German virologists dispute the high figure. Former federal government adviser on disease control, Prof Alexander Kekulé, told German media he saw a worst case scenario of 40,000 cases.
In Italy, where there are more than 12,000 confirmed cases, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has announced the closure of schools, gyms, museums, nightclubs and other venues across the country.
On Wednesday, Italian health officials said the death toll there had risen to 827 from 631.