By Agence France-Presee
The new coronavirus epidemic swelled on Wednesday with cases in South Korea surging past 1,000 after deaths soared in Iran and infections appeared in previously untouched countries, prompting dire warnings that the world was not ready to contain it.
The virus has rapidly spread in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, even as the number of deaths and fresh cases decline at the disease epicenter in China.
The disease has now reached dozens of countries, with Austria, Croatia and Switzerland the latest to declare cases.
The epidemic’s disruption has also grown, with stock markets tumbling around the world, restrictions imposed on travelers and sporting events cancelled.
Towns and cities have been sealed off in an attempt to stop the contagion, while hotels in the Canary Islands and Austria were locked down on Tuesday because of suspected cases.
Iran has reported 15 deaths out of nearly 100 infections, including its deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi.
At the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Bruce Aylward, who headed an international expert mission to China, hailed the drastic quarantine and containment measures taken by the country.
But he told reporters that other nations were “simply not ready” to contain the outbreak.
“You have to be ready to manage this at a larger scale… and it has to be done fast,” Aylward said.
“How many countries are planning hospital bed, planning ventilators… and the lab capacity to be able to manage this?” he asked
“There has to be a shift in mindset,” he insisted. “You have to plan.”
He also cautioned that China’s quick response and quality treatment of COVID-19 cases may have given other countries “a false sense of security.”
“China knows how to keep people alive from COVID… That is not going to be the case everywhere in the world,” he said. “It is a serious disease.”
He voiced particular concern that poorer countries with weak health care systems were the most at risk.
The virus has killed 2,715 persons and infected over 78,000 in China. There were 52 more deaths reported on Wednesday — the lowest in three weeks — with no fatalities outside the epicenter in central Hubei province.
The National Health Commission also reported a drop in new infections to 406, with only five outside Hubei — a figure that will boost confidence that the rest of the country is containing the epidemic.
In the rest of the world, there have been more than 40 deaths and 2,700 cases.
The UN health agency has called for countries to “prepare for a potential pandemic” — a term used to describe an epidemic that spreads throughout the world.
South Korea surge
South Korea reported 169 new infections on Wednesday, raising its total tally to 1,146 — by far the largest outside China – while an 11th person died.
The vast majority – 90 percent – of the new infections were in Daegu, the country’s fourth-largest city and the epicenter of the outbreak, and the neighboring province of North Gyeongsang.
The streets of Daegu – which has a population of 2.5 million – have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues at the few shops with masks for sale.
Authorities urged the public to exercise extra caution, advising citizens to stay home if they have a fever or respiratory symptoms.
China quarantined 94 air passengers arriving in Nanjing from Seoul after three people, all Chinese, on the flight were discovered to have fevers on Tuesday.
Thailand confirmed three more COVID-19 cases, taking the country’s total to 40, and vowed to step up efforts to contain the disease.
Two of the new cases had returned from Hokkaido in Japan and are thought to have contracted the illness there, but one of them didn’t report symptoms until three days after they developed, Permanent Health Secretary Sukhum Karnchanapimai said in a briefing Wednesday.
The two then spread the infection to a family member, an elementary school student, but Sukhum said there’s no widespread community transmission of the virus in Thailand yet. Officials are checking on 50 to 100 people, including those from the school, who may have been in contact with the three new cases. The student’s classmates have been told to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Europe lockdowns spread
Austria sealed off the 108-room Grand Hotel Europa in the Alpine tourist hub of Innsbruck after an Italian receptionist tested positive for the flu-like virus that originated in China and has spread to about 30 countries.
Italy has become a frontline in the global outbreak of the virus, with 280 cases and 10 deaths, most in Lombardy and nearby Veneto. The receptionist and her partner, who also tested positive, visited their home in Lombardy last week.
A similar story was unfolding at the four-star H10 Costa Adeje Palace hotel in Tenerife on the Canary Islands, which was locked down Tuesday after an Italian doctor and his wife were found to be infected. Spain also reported its first three cases of the disease on the mainland.
The United States told Americans on Tuesday to begin preparing for coronavirus to spread within the country as outbreaks in Iran, South Korea and Italy escalated and fears that the epidemic would hurt global growth rattled markets.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) principal deputy director, said that while the immediate risk in the United States was low, the current 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,” Schuchat said.
Italians or people who had recently visited the country tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland on Tuesday.
Several European Union countries advised their citizens not to visit northern Italy, although the outbreak was already spreading to other regions in the south.
Airlines began restricting flights to Italy, a planned shoot in the country for Tom Cruise’s seventh “Mission: Impossible” movie was postponed, Milan cathedral was closed and the Venice carnival cancelled. (With reports from Reuters and Bloomberg)