Coronavirus cases continue to spread in Italy, Iran, South Korea

The latest: 

  • Global cases top 80,000 with the vast majority of cases in China, where the health commission has reported 77,658 cases on the mainland with 2,663 deaths.
  • Iran reports 95 coronavirus cases and 15 deaths, disputes lawmaker from Qom’s claim of higher death toll.
  • UAE bans all flights in and out of Iran over COVID-19 cases.
  • Italy reports total of 260 cases, including 1st case south of Rome.
  • 2 Italians are first reported cases in Austria; Croatia and Switzerland each report first case.
  • South Korea case numbers at 977, government aims to test members of church at centre of outbreak in city of Daegu.
  • U.S. health officials say to prepare for virus to start spreading at community level.
  • Read why the WHO doesn’t yet consider the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

The head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who had urged the public not to overreact about its spread has tested positive for the illness himself, authorities said Tuesday, as new cases emanating from the country rapidly emerged across the Middle East. 

Only a day earlier, a coughing and heavily sweating Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, said at a televised news conference in Tehran that “the situation is almost stable in the country.”

The acknowledgement of Harirchi’s illness underscores a growing crisis of confidence felt by many in Iran after nationwide economic protests, a U.S. drone striking killing a top Iranian general, and Iran accidentally shooting down a commercial jetliner and insisting for days that it hadn’t.

Health ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour confirmed Harirchi had the virus. Harirchi himself posted an online video saying he had it and that he had quarantined himself at home. He promised that authorities would bring the virus under control. 

The health ministry spokesperson suggested it may take at least until Nowruz, the Persian New Year on March 20, for Iran to reach a point where the virus was contained. He added that a more “pessimistic” assessment suggested Iran would contain it by late April. 

WATCH | Iran’s deputy health minister, who tested positive for coronavirus:

Iran’s deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi wiped his forehead several times during a news conference in Tehran, a day before he was diagnosed with coronavirus. He is now under quarantine. Iran is one of the worst-hit countries for COVID-19, a situation the World Health Organization calls “deeply concerning.” 0:31

The novel coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people globally, causing around 2,700 deaths, mainly in China. The World Health Organization has named the illness COVID-19, referring to its origin late last year and the coronavirus that causes it.

The UAE, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, remains a key international transit route for Iran’s 80 million people. The flight ban, which will last at least a week, shows the growing concern over the spread of the virus in Iran amid worries the outbreak may be larger than what authorities there now acknowledge.

The announcement came after Bahrain said it would suspend all flights from Dubai and Sharjah, a neighbouring UAE emirate that is home to Air Arabia, for 48 hours.

Truck drivers wait to cross into Iran, after Pakistan sealed its border with Iran as a preventive measure on Tuesday. (Naseer Ahmed/Reuters)

Bahrain’s health ministry on Tuesday raised the number of infected cases from the new virus to eight, saying that all had travelled from Iran via Dubai. Four of them have been identified as Saudi nationals. The cases were confirmed upon arrival to Bahrain during screenings at the airport, and prior to the suspension on flights to Dubai and Sharjah, according to Bahrain’s official news agency.

Dubai has been screening passengers on incoming flights from China, where the outbreak began in December. Long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad are among the few international airlines still flying to Beijing. However, the outbreak in Iran only became public in recent days.

Iran’s government said Tuesday that 15 people had died nationwide from the new coronavirus, rejecting claims of a much higher death toll of 50 by a lawmaker from the city of Qom, the epicentre of the virus in the country. The conflicting reports raised questions about the Iranian government’s transparency concerning the scale of the outbreak.

The new death toll came from health ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour during an interview with Iranian state television. He said there were 95 confirmed cases of the virus in Iran, with many linked to Qom, a major Shia religious centre where other cases have emerged.

WHO mission to Iran delayed

A WHO mission to Iran, which had been planned for Tuesday, was delayed, a spokesperson for the Geneva-based health agency said. There was no specific date for when a WHO team would be deployed to the country.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sought to reassure the nation in a speech on Tuesday, calling the new coronavirus an “uninvited and inauspicious passenger.”

“We will get through corona,” Rouhani said. “We will get through the virus.”

Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman also announced their first cases of the virus on Monday and connected them to travel with Iran.

The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, has reported 13 cases of the new virus. Most of those were connected to Chinese travel.

Meanwhile, Kuwait raised the number of its infected cases from three to five people. All five were passengers returning on a flight from the Iranian city of Mashhad, where Iran’s government has not yet announced a single case of the virus. Kuwait had halted over the weekend transport links with Iran and was evacuating its citizens from Iran.

Iraq’s health ministry said four new cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in the northern province of Kirkuk. It said the afflicted were members of an Iraqi family who had returned from a recent trip to Iran. Iraq announced the discovery of the first coronavirus case in the country on Monday in the Shia Muslim holy city of Najaf.

Iraq had earlier closed its border with Iran to Iranian nationals but apparently Iraqis can still cross the boundary.

In Pakistan, about 100 pilgrims, mostly minority Pakistani Shias, have been quarantined at a government building after returning from Iran, officials said Tuesday. The pilgrims had returned before Pakistan on Saturday closed its border with Iran at the crossing in the town of Taftan in southwestern Baluchistan province.

More than 7,000 Pakistani pilgrims remain in Iran where health authorities will have to declare them free of the coronavirus before they can go home. Pakistan last week suspended flight operations with China, where thousands of Pakistanis have been stranded since the infectious spread there. Islamabad has no immediate plans to evacuate Pakistani citizens from China.

Italy seals off worst-affected towns, reports case in Sicily

Italian authorities on Tuesday reported a woman had tested positive for coronavirus in Sicily, the first case south of Rome, as the country battles to prevent the outbreak spreading from its origin in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.

Sicily’s regional governor Nello Musumeci said a tourist from Bergamo, in Lombardy, had been hospitalized in the island’s capital Palermo after being diagnosed with the illness and all those traveling with her had been quarantined.

The number of cases in Italy, the country in Europe worst affected so far, rose to 269 overnight from 229 on Monday, with 34 new cases reported in Lombardy and six in Veneto. Three more infected people have died in northern Italy, raising the number of deaths in that country to 10.

Elsewhere in Europe, a 70-year old man tested positive in the southern canton of Ticino, on the border with Italy, Swiss health authorities said on Tuesday, confirming Switzerland’s first case.

Canadian Dr. Bruce Aylward, who is the team leader of the World Health Organization-China mission on COVID-19, said the trend in the number of cases in China was downward. As of yesterday there were still about 50,000 people recovering across the country, he said.

Aylward also said that Chinese officials are preparing to deal with the virus for some time, possibly until there is a vaccine.

WATCH | WHO doctor says the world can learn from China on fighting the outbreak:

The world is not ready to handle COVID-19 but it can get ready fast if people change their mindset, WHO doctor says. 4:14

The public health crisis that first broke out in China and has now spread to about 29 other countries and territories.

U.S. health officials urge Americans to prepare 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday alerted Americans to begin to prepare for community spread of the virus after reports this week of new cases in several more countries.

The announcement signals a change in tone for the agency, which has largely been focused on efforts to stop the virus from entering the country and quarantining individuals travelling from China. 

Italy is not the only European country affected, but it has reported the most cases in the region. El Pais, a Spanish newspaper, reported Tuesday that a hotel in the Canary Islands was put under lockdown after a case was identified.

Spain’s government said a woman from Barcelona had tested positive for the virus after a recent trip to northern Italy.

A young Italian couple were reported to be the first cases detected in Austria, while Croatia said it has seen its first case.

South Korea to test 215,000

In South Korea — which has reported a total of 977 cases and 10 deaths — the government has said it aims to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the centre of a surge in coronavirus cases.

The church, located in the city of Daegu, said it would provide authorities the names of all its members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215,000 people. The government would test them all as soon as possible, the prime minister’s office said.

Fears of a soaring viral outbreak are gripping Daegu and the surrounding area, with residents struggling as they try to stay away from a virus that has already sickened hundreds of people in the region, killing at least 10 of them.

“We call each other here and half-jokingly ask whether they are alive and tell each other not to wander around,” Choe Hee-suk, a 37-year-old office worker, said by phone.

A member of a medical team sprays disinfectant to sanitize the area near a religious school in Najaf, Iraq, on Monday. (Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters)

In Daegu’s usually bustling Dongseongro commercial district on Monday, only a few pedestrians were seen, making it look like a ghost town. Workers dressed in black protective gear and white masks sprayed disinfectant at a nearly deserted branch of the popular Lotte Department Store, local media photos showed.

Oh Sang-hak, a taxi driver, said he hadn’t worked for several days because he was uneasy about picking up strangers with the virus circulating in the city.

“It’s like time has stopped … and there is just no movement,” Oh said. “Until last week, we thought the coronavirus was someone else’s problem.”

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