As the worst-hit areas of Asia continued to struggle with a new virus, with hundreds more cases reported Thursday in South Korea and China, worries about infection and containment spread across the globe.
South Korea reported 505 more coronavirus cases Thursday, bringing its total to 1,766. Most of the new cases were in the country’s fourth-biggest city, Daegu, where the outbreak has hit hardest and the national government has mobilized public health tools to help the region’s overwhelmed medical system. The country on Thursday also confirmed its 13th death; most of them are still in and near Daegu.
China reported 433 new cases along with 29 additional deaths. Thursday’s updates bring mainland China’s totals to 78,497 cases, and 2,744 deaths; overall, the virus has infected more than 82,000 people and caused more than 2,800 deaths.
Of the new cases in China, 383 were in the epicentre of the city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December. Wuhan also accounted for 19 of the new deaths.
Watch: Infection control specialist says WHO dragging its feet on calling COVID-19 a pandemic
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country, which has 23 cases of the virus, was operating on the basis of a pandemic and hospitals were under orders to ensure enough medical supplies, personal protective equipment and staff.
“There is every indication that the world will soon enter a pandemic phase of the coronavirus,” Morrison told a news conference in Canberra.
“As a result we have agreed today and initiated the … coronavirus emergency response plan.”
U.S. President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that the U.S. was “very, very ready” for whatever threat the coronavirus brings, and he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of overseeing the country’s response.
Watch: Trump downplays threat of coronavirus in U.S.
Meanwhile, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that there are 22 people dead amid 141 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the Islamic Republic.
A graphic published on Thursday by the agency shows that the virus has spread to 20 of Iran’s 31 provinces. The hardest-hit among them remained the province home to the holy Shia city of Qom, with 63 confirmed cases.
Experts fear Iran is underreporting the number of cases of the new virus as cases across the wider Persian Gulf have emerged in recent days linked back to the Islamic Republic.
Saudi Arabia halts travel to Islam’s holiest sites
Saudi Arabia on Thursday halted travel to the holiest sites in Islam over fears about a viral epidemic just months ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage, a move that came as the Mideast has over 220 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus.
The extraordinary decision by Saudi Arabia stops foreigners from reaching the holy city of Mecca and the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims pray toward five times a day. The decision also affected travel to Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina. Authorities also suspended entry to the kingdom to those with tourist visas from nations affected by the new virus.
The decision showed the worry about the outbreak potentially spreading into Saudi Arabia, whose oil-rich monarchy stakes its legitimacy on protecting Islam’s holy sites.
There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak.
Disease outbreaks always have been a concern surrounding the hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life, especially as pilgrims come from all over the world.
While millions attend the hajj, which is this year set for late July into early August, millions more come during the rest of the year to the holy sites in the kingdom. Those other pilgrimages are referred to as the umrah. One of the biggest times for the umrah is the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, which is set to begin at the end of April.
A Kuwaiti health ministry official said Thursday that the country has 43 confirmed cases as of Thursday, adding that all the cases involved people who had been to Iran.
In Bahrain, which confirmed 33 cases as of Thursday morning, authorities halted all flights to Iraq and Lebanon. It separately extended a 48-hour ban over flights from Dubai and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, through which infected travelers reached the island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Health Ministry on Thursday announced the first coronavirus case in the capital, Baghdad, bringing the overall number of cases reported in the country to six. All have been linked to Iran.