WHO: Virus spread ‘deeply concerning’ but not a pandemic

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    GENEVA — The sudden rise in novel coronavirus cases in Italy, Iran, and South Korea is “deeply concerning,” but the virus can still be contained and does not amount to a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) chief said on Wednesday.

    Infections linked to Iran have been confirmed in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman, while cases tied to Italy have been found in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Germany, Spain and Switzerland, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

    But for the first time on Tuesday, the number of new cases officially reported outside China — 427, by 37 countries — has exceeded new cases reported by Beijing (411), according to Tedros and figures provided by WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib.

    “We should not be too eager to declare a pandemic without a careful and clear-minded analysis of the facts,” Tedros said.

    On January 30, the WHO already declared a public health emergency of international concern, “our highest level of alarm,” he said in remarks to Geneva-based diplomats.

    “Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems. It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true,” he added.

    Tedros said a WHO mission would travel to Iran at the weekend. It had originally meant to travel there on Tuesday.

    Nineteen people have died and 139 people have been infected by new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Iran, health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said on Wednesday in an announcement on state TV.

    US WARNING

    SHANGHAI/SEOUL — Asia reported hundreds of new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, including the first US soldier to be infected, as the United States warned of an inevitable pandemic, and outbreaks in Italy and Iran spread to more countries.

    The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

    Adding to a growing sense that a rapid spread of the virus in more places is inevitable, a top WHO official urged that preparations be made now.

    In the United States, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also urged Americans to prepare, saying that while the immediate risk there was low, the global situation suggested a pandemic was likely.

    “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when and how many people will be infected,” the CDC’s principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, said on Tuesday.

    The United States has reported 57 cases of the virus.

    Dr Bruce Aylward, head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva that preparations should not wait.

    “Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready,” he said.

    “This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super fast to prevent a pandemic.”

    Aylward said China’s “extraordinary mobilization” showed how an aggressive public health policy could curb its spread.

    The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around February 2, after authorities isolated Hubei province and imposed other containment measures.

    China’s National Health Commission reported another 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

    South Korea, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones including a US soldier, as authorities readied an ambitious plan to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the centre of the outbreak.

    Of the new cases, 134 were from Daegu city, where the virus is believed to have been passed among members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

    In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

    Japan has nearly 170 virus cases and 691 linked to a cruise ship that was quarantined this month. Six people have died in Japan, including four from the ship.

    There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 11 in Italy and 19 in Iran, the most outside China, according to a Reuters tally.

    Iran’s deputy health minister – seen mopping his brow at a televised news conference – was among its 139 coronavirus infections. Cases linked to Iran have been reported across the region.

    Kuwait said six new coronavirus cases, all linked to travel to Iran, took its tally to 18, while Bahrain said its infections had risen to 26 after three new ones on a flight from Iran.

    In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians or people who had recently visited the country, have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

    Two hotels, one in Austria and one in Spain’s Canary Islands, were also locked down after cases emerged linked to Italy. Spain also reported its first three cases on the mainland.
    France, with 17 cases, reported its second death. — Reuters