Fear mounting as coronavirus cases rise outside China

The latest:

  • WHO chief says heath agency ‘specially concerned’ about rapid rise of cases in Iran, Italy and South Korea.
  • Iran’s health minister says 12 have died of COVID-19, but lawmaker in Qom cites much higher number, saying there have been 50 deaths.
  • China postpones annual political gathering over COVID-19 concerns.
  • China’s national health commission says the novel coronavirus has infected more than 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 — most in Hubei. 
  • Read more about why some experts are questioning China’s coronavirus claims.

Fears of a potential coronavirus pandemic grew on Monday after sharp rises in new cases reported in Iran, Italy and South Korea, but China relaxed restrictions on movements in several places including Beijing as its rates of new infections eased.

The virus has put Chinese cities into lockdown, disrupted air traffic to the workshop of the world and blocked global supply chains for everything from cars and car parts to smartphones.

The surge of cases outside mainland China triggered steep falls in global share markets and Wall Street stock futures as investors fled to safe havens. Gold soared to a seven-year high, oil tumbled nearly 4 per cent and the Korean won fell to its lowest level since August.

But U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the impact on the global economy or supply chains, saying it was simply too soon to know.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) said it no longer had a process for declaring a pandemic but the coronavirus outbreak remained an international emergency.

“We are specially concerned about the rapid increase in cases in … Iran, Italy and the Republic of Korea,” WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Sweden via video link.

“The number of cases in those countries has increased significantly in the last two to three days.”

South Korea reported 231 new cases, taking its total to 833, as its hard-hit fourth-largest city of Daegu became more isolated with Asiana Airlines and Korean Air suspending flights there until next month. In South Korea, authorities reported a seventh death and dozens more cases on Monday. Of the new cases, 115 were linked to a church in the city of Daegu.

Iran case numbers rise

Iran, which announced its first two cases on Wednesday, said it had confirmed 43 cases and eight deaths. Most of the infections were in the Shia Muslim holy city of Qom.

However, The Associated Press reported that an Iranian lawmaker from Qom said 50 people have died there from the new coronavirus this month, even as the Health Ministry insisted only 12 deaths have been recorded to date.

An Iraqi medical staff member is seen in a photo from last week checking a passenger’s temperature upon his arrival at the Shalamcha border crossing between Iraq and Iran amid the new coronavirus outbreak. (Essam al-Sudani/Reuters)

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Bahrain and Iraq reported their first cases and Kuwait reported three cases involving people who had been in Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed restrictions on travel and immigration from Iran. Afghanistan also reported its first case, officials said.

The WHO has been saying for weeks it dreads the disease reaching countries with weak health systems.

Europe’s biggest outbreak is in Italy, where local media have put case numbers over 200, with five deaths.

Epidemic ‘severe and complex,’ China’s president says

Scientists around the world are scrambling to analyze the virus, but a vaccine is probably more than a year away.

“Worryingly, it seems that the virus can pass from person to person without symptoms, making it extremely difficult to track, regardless of what health authorities do,” said Simon Clarke, an expert in cellular microbiology at Britain’s University of Reading.

People wearing protective face masks walk on an overpass in Shanghai on Monday. China postponed a key political meeting because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

China postponed the annual meeting of its parliament and would ban the illegal trade and consumption of wildlife, state media reported. The virus originated late last year, apparently in an illegal wildlife market in the city of Wuhan.

But there was a measure of relief for the world’s second-largest economy as more than 20 province-level jurisdictions, including Beijing and Shanghai, reported zero new infections, the best showing since the outbreak began.

President Xi Jinping urged businesses to get back to work, though he said the epidemic was still “severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage.”

The coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, most in Hubei.

Overall, China reported 409 new cases on the mainland, down from 648 a day earlier, taking the total number of infections to 77,150 cases as of Feb. 23. The death toll rose by 150 to 2,592.

Xi said on Sunday the outbreak would have a relatively big, but short-term, impact on the economy and the government would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow.

Concern in Italy as case numbers rise

In northern Italy, authorities sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings across a wide area, halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases.

Austria briefly suspended train services over the Alps from Italy after two travelers coming from Italy showed symptoms of fever.

Tourists wearing protective masks visit the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, on Sunday during the usual period of the Carnival festivities, which were cancelled for the last two days due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in northern Italy. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Both tested negative for the new coronavirus but Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said a task force would meet on Monday to discuss whether to introduce border controls.

Japan had 773 cases as of late Sunday, mostly on a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday.

At least 47 Canadians are still under quarantine in Japan after testing positive for COVID-19 while aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

In South Korea, authorities reported a seventh death and dozens more cases on Monday. Of the new cases, 115 were linked to a church in the city of Daegu.

Drone footage showed what appeared to be hundreds of people queuing in a neat line outside a Daegu supermarket under the winter sunshine to buy face masks

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