The warning came as it emerged the virus was present in Italy in December, months before its first confirmed cases and about the same time as the disease was first reported in China.
The virus, which has now killed more than 4,54,000 people and infected 8.4 million people worldwide, is surging in the Americas and parts of Asia even as Europe starts to ease restrictive measures.
Lockdowns imposed to halt the spread of the disease have caused crippling economic damage, but the WHO said the pandemic still posed a major threat. “The world is in a new and dangerous phase. Many people are understandably fed up with being at home… but the virus is still spreading fast,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference.
A vaccine remains months off at best despite several trials, while scientists are still discovering more about the virus, its symptoms and the extent to which it may have spread before being identified.
Italian researchers discovered genetic traces of coronavirus in samples of waste water collected in Milan and Turin at the end of last year, and Bologna in January, the ISS institute said. Italy’s first confirmed cases were not until February. The results “help to understand the start of the circulation of the virus in Italy,” the ISS said.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by the virus and the first in the world to impose a nationwide lockdown in early March.
Many European countries followed suit, and most have only begin reopening this month after painful shutdowns that devastated their economies. Facing the biggest recession in the EU’s history, leaders on Friday held a virtual summit on the European Commission’s proposal for a 750 billion euro ($840 billion) rescue fund.
However they fell short of reaching a deal on a plan that has been seen as a key gesture of solidarity and unity for the troubled bloc.
On the other side are countries such as Italy and Spain that were the first and hardest hit by the pandemic, having already been crippled by overstretched finances. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it was “uncertain” whether there would be a deal when leaders are set to meet in person in mid-July, adding that it may not even be finalised until after the summer.
Chinese scientists have said the virus likely emerged in a market that sold wildlife in the central city of Wuhan in December. After largely bringing the virus under control and easing restrictions, China is now fighting a resurgence of the coronavirus after finding a cluster centred on a market in the capital Beijing.
Authorities launched a nationwide campaign to inspect food imports, while tens of thousands of people are also being tested and neighbourhoods have been locked down and schools closed.
The disease continues its rampage elsewhere. United States still leads the world in the number of confirmed infections and deaths, with a recent surge in southern states.
Normality is however returning to cultural and sporting events disrupted by the virus.
Football returned to hard-hit South America on Thursday after a three-month hiatus with a Rio state tournament match in Brazil.