SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – Coronavirus is now spreading much more rapidly outside China than within the country, leading the world into uncharted territory, but the outbreak can still be contained, the World Health Organization said on Monday.
Almost nine times as many cases had been reported in the past 24 hours beyond China than inside, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that the risk of coronavirus spreading was now very high at a “global level”.
He said outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan were the greatest concern, but that there was evidence surveillance methods were working in South Korea, the worst affected country outside China, and the epidemic could be contained there.
“We are in uncharted territory – we have never seen before a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission but at the same time which can also be contained with the right measures,” he told a news briefing in Geneva.
The fight against the coronavirus should become a bridge for peace, Tedros said, commending the United States for supporting sending medical aid to Iran despite the tensions between them.
Finance ministers of the G7 group of leading industrialized democracies were expected to hold a conference call on Tuesday to discuss measures to deal with the economic impact, three sources told Reuters.
World stock markets regained some calm as hopes for global interest rate cuts to soften the economic blow steadied nerves after last week’s worst plunge since the 2008 financial crisis.
The global death toll was up to 3,044, according to a Reuters tally. A senior U.S. official said he was concerned the numbers in the United States, currently at more than 75 confirmed cases and two deaths, could jump in coming weeks.
“When you have a number of cases that you’ve identified and they’ve been in the community for a while, you’re going to wind up seeing a lot more cases than you would have predicted,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the infectious diseases unit at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, told CNN.
The number of available test kits will be ramped up in the next few weeks, officials said. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the risk to Americans was still very low.
South Korea has had 26 deaths and reported another 599 infections on Monday, taking its tally to 4,335 following Saturday’s biggest daily jump.
Of the new cases in South Korea, 377 were from the city of Daegu, home to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, to which most of South Korea’s cases have been traced after some members visited China’s Wuhan city where the disease emerged.
The Seoul government asked prosecutors to launch a murder investigation into leaders of the church. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said that if founder Lee Man-hee and other heads of the church had cooperated, fatalities could have been prevented.
“The situation is this serious and urgent, but where are the leaders of the Shincheonji, including Lee Man-hee, the chief director of this crisis?” Park said on Facebook late on Sunday.
Lee knelt and apologized to the country on Monday that one church member had infected many others, calling the epidemic a “great calamity”. “We did our best but were not able to stop the spread of the virus,” Lee told reporters.
It was not immediately known how many of South Korea’s dead were directly connected to the church.
‘OUTBREAKS ARE CURBED’
Wuhan, at the center of the epidemic in Hubei province, shut the first of 16 specially built hospitals, hurriedly put up to treat people with the virus, after it discharged its last recovered patients, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said.
News of the closure coincided with a steep fall in new cases in Hubei, but China remained on alert for people returning home with the virus from other countries.
“The rapid rising trend of virus cases in Wuhan has been controlled,” Mi Feng, a spokesman for China’s National Health Commission, told a briefing.
“Outbreaks in Hubei outside of Wuhan are curbed and provinces outside of Hubei are showing a positive trend.”
The virus broke out in Wuhan late last year and has since infected more than 86,500 people, mostly in China.
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Outside China, it has in recent days spread rapidly, now to 53 countries, with more than 6,500 cases and more than 100 deaths.
The death toll in Italy, the hardest hit European country, has jumped to 52 from 18 and the number of cases to more than 2,000 from 1,694, the Civil Protection Agency said on Monday.
The vast majority of Italy’s cases are in the wealthy northern regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna, although on Monday authorities in Rome said two people there had tested positive as well.
Another of the worst-hit nations, Iran, reported infections rising to 1,501 on Monday, with 66 deaths, including a senior official. With stocks of gloves and other medical supplies running low in pharmacies, authorities uncovered a stash of hoarded supplies including millions of gloves.
Latvia, Saudi Arabia and Senegal reported their first cases. In Britain, which has 36 confirmed cases, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to be prepared for further spread of the virus.
Global factories took a beating in February from the outbreak, with activity in China shrinking at a record pace, surveys showed, raising the prospect of a coordinated policy response by central banks.
The global spread has forced the postponement of festivals, exhibitions, trade fairs and sports events. It has crippled tourism, retail sales and global supply chains, especially in China, the world’s second-largest economy.
Middle East airlines have lost an estimated $100 million so far due to the outbreak and governments should help the carriers through this “difficult period”, an official of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said.
Global airlines stand to lose $1.5 billion this year due to the virus, he added.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that the outbreak was pitching the world economy into its worst downturn since the global financial crisis, urging governments and central banks to fight back.
The S&P 500 .SPX index tumbled 11.5% last week. Roughly $4 trillion has been wiped off the value of U.S. stocks.
It and other U.S. stock indexes rose on Monday with investors hoping that monetary stimulus from central banks would help tide over the potential economic impact.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Hyonhee Shin and Jack Kim in Seoul, Ju-min Park in Gapyeong, Ryan Woo, David Stanway, Se Young Lee, Emily Chow and Andrew Galbraith in Beijing, Leigh Thomas in Paris, Michelle Price in Washington, Leika Kihara in Tokyo, Jonathan Cable in London, Donny Kwok and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong and Grant McCool in Washington; writing by Nick Macfie and Philippa Fletcher; editing by Mark Heinrich