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China reports uptick in new coronavirus cases, South Korea infections spike

A resident of Guangzhou, China, wears a face mask outdoors February 20 2020.
A resident of Guangzhou, China, wears a face mask outdoors February 20 2020. © Alex Plavevski / EFE

An eruption of new virus cases in South Korea, Iran and Chinese hospitals and prisons rekindled concerns Friday about the spread of a deadly disease that has killed more than 2,200 people.

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The World Health Organization warned nations they could face a serious problem if they fail to "hit hard now" against the new coronavirus, which has infected more than 75,000 in China and over 1,100 abroad.

China has pointed to official numbers showing a drop in new cases this week as evidence that its drastic containment measures are working, but fresh cases emerged at two Beijing hospitals and more than 500 others were reported in prisons across the country.

Chinese authorities have placed tens of millions of people under quarantine in hard-hit central Hubei province and restricted movements in other cities far from the epicentre.

Countries have banned travellers from China and airlines have suspended flights to and from the country.

But clusters and outbreaks continue to emerge, and 11 people have now died outside mainland China.

Chinese officials said a potential vaccine could be submitted for clinical trials around late April.

Prisons and hospitals

China reported 118 more deaths on Friday, raising the toll to 2,236, most of them in Hubei.

The National Health Commission also said in its daily update that China tallied 889 new cases. The number is up from the previous day when it reported the lowest number of new infections in nearly a month, fuelling hopes that the epidemic is nearing its peak.

Among the new cases, 258 were outside Hubei, ending a 16-day streak of new infections falling in the rest of the country. New hotspots were found in prisons and hospitals.

Seven guards and 200 inmates tested positive for the virus at Rencheng prison in eastern Shandong province. Eight officials were fired over the issue.

An official newspaper in Hubei reported 230 cases at the Wuhan Women's Prison, whose warden was dismissed, and 41 others at another penitentiary in Shayang county.

Another 34 cases have been found at Shilifeng prison in eastern Zhejiang province, leading to the ouster of its director and another official.

In Beijing, health officials said 36 people, including medical staff, patients and their families, have now tested positive for the virus at Fuxing hospital, which has been under partial lockdown since January 31.

At Peking University People's Hospital, a patient became infected after a visit from two relatives who tested positive for the virus.

Most of China remains paralysed over fears of contagion, with people slowly trickling back to work, schools remaining closed, and Beijing ordering returnees to self-quarantine for 14 days.

South Korean sect

South Korea on Friday confirmed 52 more cases, taking the country's overall figure to 156, as the number of infections linked to a religious sect spiked, making it the worst-infected country outside China.

More than 80 members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southern city of Daegu have now been infected, starting with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on February 10 but attended at least four church services before being diagnosed.

The mayor of Daegu – South Korea's fourth-biggest city, with a population of over 2.5 million – has advised residents to stay indoors, while access to a major US base in the area has been restricted.

The streets remained open Friday with most people wearing masks, but many businesses were closed due to the outbreak and workers on motorcycles sprayed disinfectant outside the church.

"With so many confirmed cases here I'm worried that Daegu will become the second Wuhan," 24-year-old Seo Dong-min told AFP outside the church, referring to Hubei's capital, where the virus first emerged.

Iran reports two more deaths

Iranian health authorities on Friday reported two more deaths from the virus and said the fatalities were from among 13 new confirmed cases in Iran.

The report by the semiofficial Mehr news agency came as Iranians voted in nationwide parliamentary elections. After authorities reported two earlier deaths this week, the death toll from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, stands at four in Iran.

So far, 18 cases have been confirmed in Iran, including the four who died.

The spokesman of the health ministry, Kianoush Jahanpour, said the newly detected cases are all linked with the city of Qom, where the first two elderly patients died on Wednesday.

Jahanpour said the new cases were either from Qom or from people who had visited the city recently. He said four of them have been hospitalized in the capital, Tehran, and two in the northern province of Gilan.

Minoo Mohraz, an Iranian health ministry official, said the virus “possibly came from Chinese workers who work in Qom and traveled to China.” She did not elaborate. A Chinese company has been building a solar power plant in Qom.

Concerns over the spread of the virus prompted authorities in Iran this week to close all schools and Shiite seminaries in Qom, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Tehran.

Lebanon reports first case

In Lebanon, Health Minister Hamad Hassan on Friday reported the Mediterranean country’s first case of the new coronavirus.

At a news conference in Beirut, he said the patient was a 45-year-old woman who arrived Thursday on a flight from Qom. He said the woman was in “good health” and the ministry was also following up on the cases of two other people suspected of having the illness.

A medical source at the hospital where the woman is being treated told AFP that she returned from Iran with a high fever, but that her immunity was good and her condition stable.

Lebanon’s health minister said that all the people who were on the same flight from Iran had been contacted by the health authorities.

He said that anyone returning from Iran would be asked to observe a two-week home quarantine.

Italy reports first cases conceived in-country

In Italy, health officials reported the country's first cases of contagion in people who had not been in China. The new cases brought to sixteen the number of people in Italy known to be infected, a more than fourfold increase since Thursday.

Indicating how seriously the Italian government saw the domestically acquired infections, the country’s health ministry ordered anyone who had been in direct contact with the new patients to be quarantined for 14 days, and suspended all public activities, including school and sports events, in the northern areas affected by the outbreak.

The first to test positive for the virus was a 38-year-old Italian man from Lombardy who held several meetings with someone who had recently been in China, regional welfare chief Giulio Gallera said. The man's wife subsequently tested positive, as did a person who came into contact with the man while playing sports.

Officials in Lombardy said five health workers had tested positive, while neighbouring Veneto confirmed its first two cases.

Former cruise ship passengers test positive in Australia

In Australia, two people who had been evacuated from a virus-wracked cruise ship off Japan tested positive for mild cases of the COVID-19 illness.

Hundreds of people have been allowed to leave the ship after testing negative for the disease and many have returned to their home countries to face further quarantine.

The two cases in Australia will fuel questions about Tokyo's policy of allowing former Diamond Princess passengers to return home after testing negative.

Two former passengers, both Japanese and in their 80s, died in Japan on Thursday.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday that now "is the time to attack the virus" while the number of cases outside China remains low.

"If we don't hit hard now using the window of opportunity we might be faced with a serious problem," he said. "This virus is very dangerous and it's public enemy number one and it's not being treated as such."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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