World scrambles to contain COVID-19 as infections spread

World scrambles to contain COVID-19 as infections spread

SKorea virus
Medical workers wearing protective gear carry a patient infected with COVID-19 at a hospital in Chuncheon, South Korea. YONHAP/AFP

ROME: Coronavirus cases spread in Europe and beyond on Wednesday (Feb 26), with Latin America confirming its first patient as the world scrambled to contain the epidemic.

New cases have emerged across Europe, many linked to the continent's COVID-19 hotspot in northern Italy, amid warnings from health experts to rein in hysteria as the virus continues its march beyond China's borders.

READ: Coronavirus fear takes mental toll in Italy

READ: Shincheonji - The secretive sect in South Korea's COVID-19 outbreak

The novel coronavirus has killed more than 2,700 people and infected at least 80,000 in 34 countries, although the vast majority of cases remain in China, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

But the WHO said on Wednesday more new cases were now being recorded outside China than inside the country, where the virus first emerged in late December.

In a sign of the virus' expanding footprint, Brazil confirmed Latin America's first case, a 61-year-old who travelled to Italy's Lombardy region.

Brazil virus
Airport employees wear masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 as they work at the Sao Paulo International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Greece, Georgia and Norway all confirmed their first coronavirus cases on Wednesday.

Norway virus
Area Director Geir Bukholm and Department Director Line Vold of the Institute of Public Health hold a press conference on the first coronavirus case in Norway. Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/AFP

Greece virus
An elderly couple wearing face masks sit outside AHEPA hospital in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, Greece. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

READ: Greece confirms first COVID-19 case

The Greek case is a woman who had been in northern Italy, while France, Spain, Croatia, Austria, North Macedonia and Algeria have all reported cases linked to the country.

Several governments have advised against travel to Italy - which has 400 cases and 12 deaths - particularly to the outbreak epicentre in the north.

Pakistan also detected its first two cases on Wednesday, days after shutting its border with Iran, which has also emerged as a major coronavirus hotspot.

Pakistan virus
A volunteer hands out free face masks to people as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus, in Herat city, Afghanistan. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP

'NO PANIC'

Even as new cases continued to multiply beyond China's borders, the European Union sought to head off hysteria over the outbreak.

"This is a situation of concern, but we must not give in to panic," EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told reporters in Rome on Wednesday.

"We must also be vigilant when it comes to misinformation and disinformation," she added.

Fears over the epidemic's spread has rocked global markets in recent days, while sports matches and festivals across Europe have been cancelled.

READ: Tokyo Olympics on, organisers say, as coronavirus hits Japan events

A Mar 7 Six Nations rugby match between Italy and Ireland in Dublin was called off Wednesday, and the alpine skiing World Cup Finals - due to take place in Italy next month - will be held without any fans on the slopes.

READ: Alpine Skiing: World Cup Finals to be held without fans due to coronavirus

'POTENTIAL PANDEMIC'

The virus is believed to have emerged in a market in Wuhan city in China's Hubei province in late 2019, where it may have been transmitted to a human from an animal.

China imposed extraordinary quarantine measures in several cities, locking in tens of millions of people as it sought to curb the virus' rapid spread.

The country announced on Wednesday that people arriving in Beijing from other countries hit by the virus epidemic will go into 14-day self-quarantine.

The WHO has praised Beijing for its response, though the communist government has faced criticism at home for silencing a whistleblowing doctor who has since died from the disease.

READ: Novel coronavirus kills Chinese doctor who first warned of it

The WHO has called for countries to "prepare for a potential pandemic" - an epidemic that spreads throughout the world - even as new cases and deaths in China have continued to dip from previous numbers.

It warned that poor countries are particularly at risk, sparking fears of how countries in Latin America and Africa would cope with potential outbreaks.

In Asia, South Korea remains the most-affected country after China, with the outbreak traced to a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu.

SKorea coronavirus
Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a bus garage in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

READ: South Korea starts COVID-19 checks on more than 200,000 sect members

The city's streets have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues at the few shops with masks for sale.

South Korea reported 284 new infections on Wednesday - its largest daily increase to date - taking the overall national tally to 1,261, with the death toll rising to 12.

Most of the cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an entity often accused of being a cult, and South Korean authorities announced on Wednesday that more than 200,000 members of the sect would be checked for coronavirus symptoms.

'CONCEALING INFORMATION'

Meanwhile in the Middle East, the virus has claimed 19 lives in Iran - the highest tally outside China - with 139 infected.

Even the country's deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi has contracted the virus.

READ: Iran's deputy health minister says he has coronavirus

Iran's cyberpolice on Wednesday said 24 people were arrested for rumour-mongering about the outbreak. Authorities also announced domestic travel restrictions for confirmed or suspected cases instead of quarantining of whole cities.

Reporters Without Borders said Iran "seems to be concealing information about the epidemic in line with China's example", accusing it of also blocking independent reporting of the outbreak.

READ: US says Iran may have suppressed 'vital details' on COVID-19 outbreak

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

In the US, health authorities have warned the virus is likely to spread on its soil, while President Donald Trump will hold a news conference on the virus later on Wednesday in Washington.

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Source: AFP/de

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