Coronavirus spreads further as WHO expert warns world 'not ready' for pandemic
Coronavirus has spread further around the world as a World Health Organisation expert warned that countries outside China are “simply not ready” for a pandemic.
The virus has proliferated in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East in recent days, with the death toll rising in Iran, infections in South Korea passing 1,200 and the first suspected case recorded in Latin America – even as the number of deaths and fresh cases decline at the disease epicentre in China. Covid-19 has now reached dozens of countries with Austria, Croatia and Switzerland the latest to declare cases.
At the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Bruce Aylward, who headed an international expert mission to China, praised its drastic quarantine and containment measures but warned that other nations were “simply not ready” to contain the outbreak.
“You have to be ready to manage this at a larger scale … and it has to be done fast,” Aylward said, noting that every country in the world should learn from China’s successful experience of containing the virus and treating those who fall ill.
“Access the expertise of China,” said Aylward, speaking in a personal capacity at the World Health Organisation in Geneva. “They have done this at speed and they know what they are doing. They are really, really good at it.”
China’s epidemic has peaked and the numbers are on their way down, thanks to an unprecedented engagement at every level by the Chinese, he said. The data they saw suggested it had saved many people from sickness and possible death. “Hundreds of thousands of people in China did not get COVID-19 because of this aggressive response,” he said.
The WHO has called for countries to “prepare for a potential pandemic” – a term used to describe an epidemic that spreads across multiple continents.
The virus has killed 2,715 people and infected more than 78,000 in China. There were 52 more deaths inside the country reported on Wednesday – the lowest in three weeks – with no fatalities outside the epicentre in central Hubei province.
On Wednesday, Beijing’s health commissioner announced that the capital would quarantine people for 14 days at home or in groups if they have been to countries seriously hit by the coronavirus.
China’s National Health Commission also reported a drop in new infections to 406, with only five outside Hubei. In the rest of the world there have been more than 40 deaths and 2,700 cases.
But cases of the virus outside China swelled on Wednesday, including in South Korea, which reported 284 new infections on Wednesday, raising its total to 1,261 – by far the most outside China – while an 11th person died.
Ninety per cent of the new infections in South Korea were in Daegu and the neighbouring province of North Gyeongsang. Seoul has announced plans to introduce “maximum measures” to contain the coronavirus, including plans to test around 200,000 members of a secretive church believed to be at the centre of the country’s outbreak.
A 23-year-old US soldier who had been based in a US camp in a town near Daegu tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a statement from US Forces Korea, and was in self-isolation at his off-base residence.
In Japan the football league was cancelled and questions were raised over the viability of the Tokyo Olympics.
The developments in Asia came after three more people died from Covid-19 disease in Iran, which has reported 16 fatalities out of nearly 100 infections. It has been scrambling to contain the spread of the virus since last week when it announced its first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad.
The deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi said he had contracted the virus after appearing at a press conference in which he downplayed its significance of the virus but appeared feverish.
The first potential case in Latin America was reported late on Tuesday with Brazilian authorities saying a 61-year-old man in São Paulo had tested positive. According to the O Globo newspaper the man recently arrived back in the country from Italy.
In Europe towns and cities have been sealed off in an attempt to stop the contagion, while hotels in the Canary Islands and Austria were locked down because of suspected cases. Italy – which has reported 10 deaths and more than 300 cases – has locked down 11 towns and ordered Serie A football games to be played to empty stadiums.
A man who returned to Croatia from Italy became the first case in the Balkans region.
Disruption around the world has grown with stock markets tumbling, restrictions imposed on travellers and sporting events cancelled. Australia’s ASX200 dropped 2.5% on Wednesday, wiping billions off its value.
In the United States, which has a few dozen cases, health authorities urged local governments, businesses and schools to develop plans like cancelling mass gatherings or switching to teleworking as the country braces for the virus to spread further.
San Francisco declared a local emergency despite having no recorded cases. California’s fourth-largest city said it made the move to boost its coronavirus preparedness and raise public awareness of risks that the virus may spread to the city. “Although there are still zero confirmed cases in San Francisco residents, the global picture is changing rapidly and we need to step up preparedness,” said the city’s mayor, London Breed.