As coronavirus spreads, WHO urges world to ‘prepare for potential pandemic’

A police officer mans a checkpoint outside the town of Zorlesco in Italy's northern Lombardy region, where residents have been ordered to stay home amid a rapidly worsening coronavirus outbreak.
A police officer mans a checkpoint outside the town of Zorlesco in Italy's northern Lombardy region, where residents have been ordered to stay home amid a rapidly worsening coronavirus outbreak. © Miguel Medina, AFP

The World Health Organization on Monday said the new coronavirus epidemic had "peaked" in China but warned that a surge in cases elsewhere was "deeply concerning" and that all countries should prepare for a possible pandemic.


WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the peak in China occurred between January 23 and February 2 and the number of new cases there "has been declining steadily since then”.

"This virus can be contained," he told reporters in Geneva, praising China for helping to prevent an even bigger spread of the disease through unprecedented lockdowns and quarantines in or near the outbreak's epicentre.

“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, yes,” Tedros added, but “for the moment we're not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus.”


An acceleration of cases in other parts of the world has prompted countries to adopt drastic measures similar to China’s. Italy has locked down 11 towns and South Korea ordered the entire 2.5 million residents of the city of Daegu to remain indoors.

The virus's spread has also caused steep falls in several European stock markets – with Milan plunging 5.4 percent – and a boost for safe-haven gold amid fears the epidemic could hit a global economic recovery.

The spread of the disease – officially known as COVID-19 – continued unabated with Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman announcing their first cases on Monday.

China also continued its preventive measures against the virus, on Monday postponing its agenda-setting annual parliament meeting for the first time since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Iran denies cover-up

In Iran, the death toll climbed on Monday by four to 12 – the highest number for any country outside China.

But there were concerns the situation might be worse than officially acknowledged. The semi-official ILNA news agency quoted one local lawmaker in hard-hit Qom – a religious centre – who said 50 people had died there.

The Iranian government denied the report, and pledged transparency.

Even so, authorities have only reported 64 infections in Iran, an unusually small number that would mean an extremely high mortality rate. In comparison, 2,592 people have died in China out of 77,000 infections.

Michael Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies programme, said a team from the UN agency would be arriving in Iran on Tuesday.

But he cautioned against drawing any conclusions about the mortality rate. Iran "may only be detecting severe cases" because the epidemic was still at an early stage, he said.

"We need to understand the exact dynamics of what has happened in Iran, but clearly there have been gatherings for religious festivals, and then people coming and then moving afterwards," he said.

Seoul warns against fanning 'public panic'

South Korea has also seen a rapid rise in infections since a cluster sprouted in a religious sect in Daegu last week.

Local officials reported more than 200 infections and two more deaths on Monday, bringing the total cases to more than 830 – by far the most outside China.

Eight people have died from the virus there, and President Moon Jae-in over the weekend raised the country's virus alert to the highest "red" level.

As part of the containment efforts, school holidays were extended nationally while the 2.5 million people in Daegu were told to remain indoors.

Authorities in Hong Kong announced that from Tuesday it would not allow arrivals from South Korea other than returning residents. Mongolia earlier announced it would not allow flights from South Korea to land.

Speaking in Geneva, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa warned governments against "taking action that would fan public panic.

"I am deeply concerned at incidents of xenophobia and hatred, discriminatory immigration controls and arbitrary repatriation," she said.

Italy curbs football, fashion gatherings

Fears were also growing in Europe, with Italy reporting three more deaths Monday, bringing the total to six.

More than 200 people have been infected there, most of them in the northern Lombardy region, and several Serie A football games were postponed over the weekend.

The famed Venice Carnival was also cut short, and some Milan Fashion Week runway shows were cancelled.

More than 50,000 people in about a dozen northern Italian towns have been told to stay home, and police set up checkpoints to enforce a blockade.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that residents could face weeks of lockdown.

French citizens returning from Lombardy and neighbouring Veneto have been instructed to avoid "all non-essential outings" and keep their children home from school.

The Italian regions, along with South Korea, have been added to a list of places that are covered by a series of official health recommendations, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore.

EU health officials on Monday warned of a "moderate to high" risk of more new coronavirus clusters of the type happening in northern Italy, but the European Commission in Brussels said it did not see a basis at this time for border controls to be reimposed in the Schengen zone.


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