The World Health Organisation has signalled a new ray of hope to combat the coronavirus outbreak after announcing another spike in the death toll from the virus it is calling "public enemy number one".

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus believes the first vaccine could be ready in 18 months, saying there is a "realistic chance" that "rational and evidence-based interventions" will be able to stop the spread of the epidemic.

It comes as the organisations announced a new identity for the flu-like illness, ahead of a meeting of more than 400 scientists from around the world who will convene to discuss solutions. From now on, authorities will use the label "COVID-19" – a name deliberately avoiding hints at its country of origin, in order to avoid sufferers being further stigmatised. 

Overnight Tuesday, the number of fatalities confirmed in mainland China hit 1017, while another 42,708 people have been infected so far.

Dr Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, the world needed to "wake up" to the threat more serious than terrorism.

"To be honest, a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack," he said.

"A virus can have more powerful consequences than any terrorist action."

Coronavirus declared ‘public enemy number one’ as WHO announces vaccine hope_1
Dr Paul McKay, who is working on a vaccine for COVID-19, poses for a photograph with bacteria containing the coronavirus DNA, at Imperial College School of Medicine (ICSM) in London. Photo: Getty

But a look at the world shows the numbers of new cases were falling in parts, according to government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan.

The epidemiologist, who won fame for his role in combating an outbreak of SARS in 2003, went so far as to say that coronavirus infections "may be over" by April as the epidemic looks set to peak in February.

Only 319 cases have been confirmed in 24 other countries and territories outside mainland China, with two deaths: one in Hong Kong and the other in the Philippines.

He took the Geneva press conference on Wednesday morning (Australian time) to urge wealthy countries to "invest in preparedness”, as the outbreak still poses a “very grave threat for the rest of the world”.



Perhaps, what's even more concerning is the ability for the coronavirus to "create havoc", if it spreads to countries with weak health systems, Mr Ghebreyesus said.

WHO decided to give the disease the official name "Covid-19" to "prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatising", Mr Ghebreyesus said.

WHO executive director Dr Michael Ryan said “one clinical trial is already on the way” in China to develop an effective vaccine or cure.

He hopes China, with WHO's help, will be able to establish more clinical trials in the very near future.

Coronavirus declared ‘public enemy number one’ as WHO announces vaccine hope_2
A passenger wearing a protective mask and covering her body with plastic bags as protection from the coronavirus at Beijing railway station in Beijing. Photo: AAP

Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday that China's prevention and control work on the coronavirus is having positive results and the country will win the battle against the virus, state media reported.

China will be more prosperous after the battle against the virus is won, the report cited Mr Xi as saying.

Across the globe, thousands of people remain trapped on cruise ships that were placed in lockdown – but not all have confirmed cases aboard.

There are currently four stationary ships with well over 5000 passengers who are being monitored or quarantined as health officials seek to contain the spread.

They include Diamond Princess, Westerdam, World Dream and The Anthem of the Seas.

Coronavirus declared ‘public enemy number one’ as WHO announces vaccine hope_3
The Diamond Princess cruise ship had around 3,700 people on board, with 10 passengers confirmed to be infected with coronavirus.

Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan is the main concern, with 135 people infected, 11 of whom are Australians.

No passengers on board the other three ships tested positive for the coronavirus.

-with agencies