Virus hits more countries as health official warns world 'not ready'

Virus hits more countries as health official warns world 'not ready'

Bruce Aylward
Team leader of the joint mission between World Health Organization (WHO) and China on COVID-19, Bruce Aylward shows graphics during a press conference at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP

GENEVA: The coronavirus epidemic caused more death and disruption on Tuesday (Feb 25), spreading to new countries as a top health official warned the world was "simply not ready" to contain it.

Coronavirus cases in South Korea surged past 1,000 while deaths soared in Iran. The virus has rapidly spread in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, even as the number of fresh cases and deaths decline at the disease epicentre in China.

Entire towns and cities in different parts of the world have been sealed off in an attempt to stop the contagion, while hotels in the Canary Island and Austria were placed under lockdown on Tuesday because of suspected cases.

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In Iran, which has reported 15 deaths from the disease out of nearly 100 infections, even the country's deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi said he had contracted the virus.

At the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Bruce Aylward, who headed up an international expert mission to China, told reporters that other countries were "simply not ready" to rein in the outbreak.

"You have to be ready to manage this at a larger scale ... and it has to be done fast," Aylward said, insisting all countries had to "be ready as if this hits us tomorrow".

China virus
People wear masks as a preventive measure against COVID-19 virus as they look at their mobile phones while waiting at a food stall on a street in Beijing, China. (Photo: GREG BAKER/AFP)

SPREAD TO NEW COUNTRIES

The virus has killed 2,715 people and infected over 78,000 in China. There were 52 more deaths reported on Wednesday - the lowest in three weeks - with no fatalities outside the epicentre in central Hubei province.

The National Health Commission also reported a drop in new infections to 406, with only five outside Hubei - a figure that will boost confidence that the rest of the country is containing the epidemic.

In the rest of the world, there have been more than 40 deaths and 2,700 cases.

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The disease has now reached dozens of countries, with Austria, Croatia and Switzerland the latest to declare cases.

The epidemic's disruption has also grown, with stock markets tumbling around the world, restrictions imposed on travellers and sporting events cancelled.

The WHO has called for countries to "prepare for a potential pandemic" -- a term used to describe an epidemic that spreads throughout the world.

Poor countries are particularly at risk, the WHO has warned.

SOUTH KOREA SURGE

South Korea reported 169 new infections on Wednesday, raising its total tally to 1,146 - by far the largest outside China - while a 12th person died.

A 23-year-old US soldier stationed at Camp Carroll in Daegu was also infected. Some 28,500 American troops are deployed in South Korea.

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The vast majority - 90 per cent - of the new infections were in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city and the epicentre of the outbreak, and the neighbouring province of North Gyeongsang.

China quarantined 94 air passengers arriving in Nanjing from Seoul after three people, all Chinese, on the flight were discovered to have fevers on Tuesday.

IRAN, ITALY HOTSPOTS

In the Middle East, Iran has emerged as a major hotspot, with three more people dying from the COVID-19 disease on Tuesday.

The country has been scrambling to contain the epidemic since last week when it announced its first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose country came to the brink of war with Iran earlier this year, said Washington is deeply concerned Tehran "may have suppressed vital details" about the outbreak there.

Gulf countries announced new measures to cut links with Iran in an attempt to stop the spread.

READ: Thailand reports 3 new COVID-19 cases, total infections at 40

Meanwhile Italy - which has reported 11 deaths and more than 300 cases - has locked down 11 towns and ordered Serie A football games to be played to empty stadiums.

A young man who returned to Croatia from Italy became the first case in the Balkans region.

In the United States, which has a few dozen cases, health authorities urged local governments, businesses and schools to develop plans such as cancelling mass gatherings or switching to teleworking as the country braces for the virus to spread further.

CHINA RETURNING TO BUSINESS

In China meanwhile, the epidemic appears to be slowing.

Reassured by the official numbers, the country is gingerly returning to business.

Shanghai virus
People wearing protective face masks at an intersection in Shanghai, China. NOEL CELIS/AFP

Beijing is seeing more cars on the street, factories are resuming work, Apple is reopening several stores, and some regions are relaxing traffic restrictions.

But schools remain closed, the capital has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for returning residents, and authorities are keeping some 56 million people in Hubei Province - the hub of the outbreak - under lockdown.

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Source: AFP/de/hm

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