Coronavirus pandemic inevitable, US warns as disease spreads across globe
BEIJING - Reuters
This photo taken on Feb. 22, 2020 shows medical staff checking notes in an intensive care unit treating COVID-19 coronavirus patients at a hospital in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. (Photo by STR via AFP)
Asia reported hundreds of new coronavirus cases on Feb. 26, including the first U.S. soldier to be infected, as the United States warned of an inevitable pandemic, and outbreaks in Italy and Iran spread to more countries.
Asian shares fell on Feb. 26 as the U.S. warning to Americans to prepare for a likely coronavirus pandemic jolted Wall Street again and pushed yields on safe-haven Treasuries to record lows.
Stock markets globally have wiped out $3.33 trillion of value in the past four trading sessions, as measured by the MSCI all-country index that comprises stocks across 23 developed and 26 emerging markets.
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.
Adding to a growing sense that a rapid spread of the virus in more places is inevitable, a top World Health Organization (WHO) official urged that preparations be made now.
In the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also 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 Feb. 25.
The United States has reported 57 cases of the virus.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, 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."
Aylward said China's "extraordinary mobilisation" 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 Feb. 26, 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.
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 center 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 kilometers from Daegu, had been infected and was in self-quarantine at home.
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 even though officials have repeatedly denied the Games will be affected.
Japan has nearly 170 virus cases and 691 linked to a cruise ship that was quarantined this month. Six people have died in Japan, including four from the ship.
There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 11 in Italy and 16 in Iran, the most outside China, according to a Reuters tally.
Kuwait said it had two new coronavirus cases, some among people returning from Iran, took its tally to 18, while Bahrain said its infections had risen to 26 after three new ones on a flight from Iran.
Nineteen dead, 139 infected in Iran
Nineteen people have died and 139 people have been infected by coronavirus in Iran, health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said on Feb. 26 in an announcement on state TV.
Iran has had the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged in late 2019.
Iranian officials announced the first deaths and infections from coronavirus in the Islamic Republic last week, and the spike in numbers in a short period of time has led Iranians to criticize authorities online and accuse them of a cover-up, a charge officials have denied.
Several of Iran's neighbours have closed their borders and banned flights from Iran due to fears over the virus, which could hurt the Islamic Republic's already fragile economy.
Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan have all reported cases of coronavirus involving people who traveled to Iran.
President Hassan Rouhani said on Feb. 26 that coronavirus must not become an enemy weapon that prevents business in Iran, according to the official presidency website.
Iran's economy has been battered since the United States withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
"Corona should not be turned into a weapon of our enemies for shutting down work and production in the country," Rouhani said. "The Americans and our enemies during this time, around two years of which have passed, have wanted, with their sanctions and propaganda, to shut down production and economic activities in this country and for the people to suffer."
Cases rise in Italy, with children among new ones
Meanwhile, in northern Italy, the outbreak of coronavirus worsened on Feb. 26, with more than 30 new cases confirmed in the two worst-hit regions and children found to have the illness for the first time.
Officials in Lombardy, which includes Italy's financial capital Milan, said cases had risen overnight to 259 from 240 on Feb. 25, with four children, including a 4-year-old girl, infected in the first such cases in the country.
In neighbouring Veneto, the number of people confirmed to have caught the flu-like virus was 58, an increase of 13 on the previous tally given on Feb. 25.
The death toll from the contagion, which came to light on Feb. 21, remained unchanged at 11. All those who have died so far have been elderly and most had underlying health problems.
After first emerging in Italy in Lombardy and Veneto, the country's economic powerhouse, the illness has now spread to seven other regions, including Sicily in the far south, with the total number of cases nationwide climbing above 350.
Italians or people who had recently visited the north of the country have tested positive in Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia and France since the weekend, showing how far and fast the illness - which was first identified in China last month - could spread.
In bid to halt the outbreak, authorities have shut schools, universities, museums, cinemas and theatres across much of the north. Many countries have advised their nationals not to visit the north of Italy and hoteliers have reported a wave of cancellations, putting the local tourism industry at threat.
"We should stay calm, there is no reason to be particularly afraid," said Elisabetta Jacona, a Milan resident and doctor.
"The only advice I can give, as a doctor, is telling people who are more at risk, elderly people or people with previous pathologies ... to avoid going out."
Analysts have warned that the outbreak could shunt Italy's fragile economy into its fourth recession in 12 years.
Greece confirms first coronavirus case
A Greek woman who recently returned home from northern Italy has become Greece's first coronavirus case and she is being closely monitored, the health ministry said on Feb. 26.
No further information was immediately available on the previous movements of the 38-year-old woman, though one Greek media outlet, Proto Thema, said she had travelled to Greece by road.
Greece has not introduced any travel restrictions to Italy, which is the country in Europe most affected by the outbreak with more than 370 cases and 12 deaths reported.
"She is in good health and is being monitored by a team of exceptional colleagues in Thessaloniki," health ministry representative Sotiris Tsiodras told a news briefing.
Authorities are in the process of identifying people the woman has come into contact with, he said, adding that those who have been in close proximity would be placed in isolation.
A health ministry official said 10-15 people the patient had been in touch with had already been quarantined.