Coronavirus spread 'deeply concerning' but not a pandemic: WHO director

The latest: 

  • WHO director says COVID-19 cases outside China ‘deeply concerning’ but does not label outbreak a pandemic.
  • South Korea case number rises to 1,261, with most cases in and around city of Daegu.
  • Japanese PM urges sports and cultural events to be limited for 2-week period.
  • WHO mission to Iran now scheduled for the weekend.
  • Italy sees 12th death as case count rises to 374.
  • Public health officials say risk in Canada is low. Read more about how Canada is preparing here.

Asia reported hundreds of new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, including the first U.S. soldier to be infected, in South Korea, as outbreaks in Italy and Iran spread to more countries.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

The sudden rise in cases of novel coronavirus in Italy, Iran and South Korea is “deeply concerning,” but the virus can still be contained and does not amount to a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) chief said on Wednesday.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems. It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in remarks to Geneva-based diplomats.

He also said that a WHO mission to Iran — which was initially supposed to go to the Islamic Republic on Tuesday —would now travel at the weekend.

Tedros’s remarks come after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to prepare, saying that while the immediate risk there was low, the global situation suggested a pandemic was likely.

“It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when and how many people will be infected,” the CDC’s principal deputy director Anne Schuchat said on Tuesday. The United States has reported 57 cases of the virus.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Canadian head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva that preparations should not wait.

“Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready,” he said.

“This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super fast to prevent a pandemic.”

WATCH | Canadian head of joint WHO-Chinese mission details what he saw on the ground:

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

Aylward said China’s “extraordinary mobilization” showed how an aggressive public health policy could curb its spread.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around Feb. 2, after authorities isolated Hubei province and imposed other containment measures.

China’s National Health Commission reported another 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

Here’s the latest from South Korea

Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear spray anti-septic solution to fight the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a traditional market on Wednesday in Seoul. The government has raised the coronavirus alert to the ‘highest level’ as confirmed case numbers keep rising. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

South Korea, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones, including a U.S. soldier, as authorities readied an ambitious plan to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the centre of the outbreak.

Of the new cases, 134 were from Daegu city, where the virus is believed to have been passed among members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The U.S. military said a 23-year-old soldier based in Camp Carroll, about 20 kilometres from Daegu, had been infected and was in self-quarantine at home.

The South Korean military announced 20 cases on its bases and some 9,570 people in isolation.

Here’s the latest from Japan

Students of Ariake-nishi Gakuen School in Tokyo wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, as they attend an event marking six months to go until the Olympics. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan’s professional baseball teams will play matches without spectators until March 15 due to virus concerns, Kyodo news agency reported.

Japan has nearly 170 virus cases and 691 linked to the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined this month. Six people have died in Japan, including four from the ship.

At least 47 Canadians who were on board the ship tested positive for COVID-19. Canadian passengers who did not test positive were flown home and are currently under quarantine in Ontario. Those who tested positive are in Japanese health centres.

Here’s the latest from Iran and the Middle East

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

Iran’s deputy health minister — seen mopping his brow at a televised news conference — was among those reported to have coronavirus infections in Iran.

“We don’t expect a miracle in the short term,” said Kianoush Jahanpour of the health ministry in Iran, where an official tally of infections of 139 was doubted by some who thought the problem was far bigger.

Cases linked to Iran have been reported across the region.

Kuwait said six new coronavirus cases, all linked to travel to Iran, took its tally to 18, while Bahrain said its infections had risen to 26 after three new ones on a flight from Iran.

Here’s the latest from Europe

In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak.

A 12th person in northern Italy died as a result of contracting the coronavirus, while the number of confirmed cases has risen to 374, an increase of more than 50 from the day before, the head of the Civil Protection agency said Wednesday.

Angelo Borrelli told reporters the deceased man was 69. All those who have died so far in the outbreak, which came to light in Italy last Friday, have been elderly and most had underlying health problems.

Italians or people who had recently visited the country, have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one in Spain’s Canary Islands, were also locked down after cases emerged linked to Italy. Spain also reported its first three cases on the mainland.

France, with 17 cases, reported its second death.

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