Scramble to contain coronavirus as infections spread

Jastinder Khera, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Feb 27 2020 07:05 AM

Tourists walk next to the display flight information at Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport, where cases of novel coronavirus has been confirmed in Barcelona, Spain Feb. 26, 2020. Nacho Doce, Reuters

ROME — Coronavirus cases spread in Europe and beyond on Wednesday, with Latin America confirming its first patient as the world scrambled to contain the epidemic that has killed thousands worldwide. 

New cases have emerged across Europe, many linked to the continent's coronavirus hotspot in northern Italy, amid warnings from health experts to rein in hysteria as the virus continues its march beyond China's borders.

The novel coronavirus has killed over 2,700 people and infected more than 80,000 in 34 countries, although the vast majority of cases remain in China, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

But the WHO said Wednesday more new cases were now being recorded outside China than inside the country, where the virus first emerged in late December.

In a sign of the virus' expanding footprint, Brazil confirmed Latin America's first case, a 61-year-old who traveled to Italy's Lombardy region.

Greece, Georgia and Norway all confirmed their first coronavirus cases on Wednesday.

The Greek case is a woman who had been in northern Italy, while France, Spain, Croatia, Austria, North Macedonia and Algeria have all reported cases linked to the country.

Several governments have advised against travel to Italy -- which has 400 cases and 12 deaths -- particularly to the outbreak epicenter in the north.

Pakistan also detected its first two cases on Wednesday, days after shutting its border with Iran, which has also emerged as a major coronavirus hotspot.

'NO PANIC' 

Even as new cases continued to multiply beyond China's borders, the European Union sought to head off hysteria over the outbreak.

"This is a situation of concern, but we must not give in to panic," EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told reporters in Rome on Wednesday.

"We must also be vigilant when it comes to misinformation and disinformation," she added.

Fears over the epidemic's spread has rocked global markets in recent days, while sports matches and festivals across Europe have been cancelled.

A March 7 Six Nations rugby match between Italy and Ireland in Dublin was called off Wednesday, and the alpine skiing World Cup Finals -- due to take place in Italy next month -- will be held without any fans on the slopes.

'POTENTIAL PANDEMIC' 

The virus is believed to have emerged in a market in Wuhan city in China's Hubei province in late 2019, where it may have been transmitted to a human from an animal.

China imposed extraordinary quarantine measures in several cities, locking in tens of millions of people as it sought to curb the virus' rapid spread.

The country announced Wednesday that people arriving in Beijing from other countries hit by the virus epidemic will go into 14-day self-quarantine.

The WHO has praised Beijing for its response, though the communist government has faced criticism at home for silencing a whistleblowing doctor who has since died from the disease.

The WHO has called for countries to "prepare for a potential pandemic" -- an epidemic that spreads throughout the world -- even as new cases and deaths in China have continued to dip from previous numbers. 

It warned that poor countries are particularly at risk, sparking fears of how countries in Latin America and Africa would cope with potential outbreaks. 

In Asia, South Korea remains the most-affected country after China, with the outbreak traced to a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu. 

The city's streets have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues at the few shops with masks for sale.

South Korea reported 284 new infections Wednesday -- its largest daily increase to date -- taking the overall national tally to 1,261, with the death toll rising to 12.

Most of the cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an entity often accused of being a cult, and South Korean authorities announced on Wednesday that more than 200,000 members of the sect would be checked for coronavirus symptoms.

'CONCEALING INFORMATION' 

Meanwhile in the Middle East, the virus has claimed 19 lives in Iran -- the highest tally outside China -- with 139 infected.

Even the country's deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi has contracted the virus. 

Iran's cyberpolice on Wednesday said 24 people were arrested for rumor-mongering about the outbreak. Authorities also announced domestic travel restrictions for confirmed or suspected cases instead of quarantining of whole cities.

Reporters Without Borders said Iran "seems to be concealing information about the epidemic in line with China's example", accusing it of also blocking independent reporting of the outbreak.

Several Gulf countries have announced measures to cut links with Iran in an attempt to stop the virus spread.

In the US, health authorities have warned the virus is likely to spread on its soil, while President Donald Trump will hold a news conference on the virus later Wednesday in Washington. 


© Agence France-Presse