COVID-19 spreads faster outside China, stoking global fears

The number of new infections inside China of the virus that causes COVID-19 was for the first time overtaken by fresh cases elsewhere on Wednesday, with Italy and Iran emerging as new epicenters of the rapidly spreading disease.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America’s first infection and the new coronavirus was also detected for the first time in Pakistan, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Romania and Algeria.

U.S. health authorities are managing 59 cases so far — mostly Americans repatriated from a cruise ship in Japan — and have said a global pandemic is likely.

U.S. President Donald Trump, seeking to calm markets and an increasingly worried public, said in a live broadcast that the United States was “very very ready” to face the virus threat and that Vice President Mike Pence would be in charge of the national response. It was one of just a handful of times that the president has appeared in the White House briefing room.

Trump declared that a widespread U.S. outbreak wasn’t inevitable, even as top health authorities at his side warned Americans that more infections were coming. He compared the new virus to the flu, which kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Standing next to him, the health officials Trump praised for fighting the coronavirus and stressed that schools, businesses and individuals need to get ready.

“We do expect more cases,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schuchat advised people to follow “tried and true, not very exciting” but important precautions: wash your hands, cover your coughs and stay home when you’re sick.

A key question is whether the Trump administration is spending enough money to get the country prepared — especially as the CDC has struggled to expand the number of states that can test people for the virus. Health officials have exhausted an initial $105 million in emergency funding and have been looking elsewhere for dollars.

A day earlier, another CDC official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, told Americans to get ready for some of the same steps as occurred during the 2009 flu pandemic, such as school closings. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” she said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio urged the federal government to tighten testing for visitors from a range of countries where the virus has been spreading, adding that its eventual detection in the city was “100 percent certain.”

The CDC confirmed an infection of the new virus in California in someone who had not traveled outside the United States or been exposed to a person known to have the virus — a first for the country. How the person was infected was not known.

At the White House, Trump said he was not ready to institute new travel restrictions for countries such as South Korea and Italy. The State Department raised its travel alert level for South Korea. The CDC has advised Americans not to visit China and South Korea, and on Wednesday stepped up travel warnings for Iran, Italy and Mongolia.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, said that while the virus was contained in the United States, Americans must prepare for a potential outbreak as transmissions spread outside of China.

The U.S. postponed joint military drills with South Korea on Thursday to limit the spread of the virus.

An upcoming “command post training,” usually conducted by members of the two militaries’ Combined Forces Command, will be postponed “until further notice,” according to a statement from the command.

South Korea reported another 334 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, pushing the total to 1,595 — the most in any country other than China.

Taiwan on Thursday raised its epidemic response to the highest level. Taiwan’s Central News Agency said Premier Su Tseng-chang announced the decision in a Cabinet meeting, citing sporadic cases of community transmission on the island.

Taiwan has logged 32 cases of infection with the virus and one death, and has largely suspended travel and tourism links with China to curb its spread.

Among the first outbreaks of the new virus, which can lead to pneumonia, were those seen in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

While radical quarantining measures have helped slow the rate of transmission in China, it is accelerating elsewhere.

Germany, which has around 20 cases, said it was already impossible to trace all chains of infection. Health Minister Jens Spahn urged regional authorities, hospitals and employers to review their pandemic planning.

The World Health Organization said China had reported 412 new cases on Tuesday, while there were 459 in 37 other countries.

However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised diplomats in Geneva on Wednesday against speaking of a pandemic — which the WHO defines as the worldwide spread of a new disease.

“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,” he said. “It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.”

As anxiety increased, Mexican authorities barred a cruise ship from docking at one of its ports over what the ship’s company said was a single case of common seasonal flu.

The WHO says the outbreak in China peaked around Feb. 2 following measures that included isolating its origin, Hubei province. It said only 10 new cases were reported in China on Tuesday outside of Hubei.

There is no known vaccine for the virus. The U.S. pharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences said Wednesday it had started two late-stage studies to test its experimental antiviral drug remdesivir in humans.

As the cases have rippled outward, the effects on large gatherings have increased. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The International Monetary Fund is considering whether to make its April meeting in Washington virtual, sources said.

Latin America’s first case was confirmed in a 61-year-old man in Sao Paulo who had recently visited Italy.

The diagnosis coincided with the Carnival holiday, a peak time for domestic travel.

In addition to Brazil, Italians or people who recently visited Italy have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Italy itself has reported more than 400 cases, centered on the industrial heartlands of Lombardy and Veneto.

A hotel in Tenerife, on Spain’s Canary Islands, was locked down over cases linked to Italy.

“It’s very scary because everyone is out, in the pool, spreading the virus,” said 45-year-old hotel guest Lara Pennington.

In France, a second person died — a teacher who had not visited any country with a known outbreak.

There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 12 in Italy and 19 in Iran, according to a Reuters tally.

While Iran has reported only 139 cases, epidemiologists say the death rate of around 2 percent seen elsewhere suggests that the true number of cases must be many times higher.

Cases linked to Iran have been reported across the Middle East. Iraq imposed travel bans to affected countries and barred public gatherings.

Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended foreigners’ entry for the Umrah pilgrimage and tourism from countries where the virus has spread. The kingdom, which hosts the two holiest sites of Islam, in Mecca and Medina, welcomes millions of Muslim visitors throughout the year, with a peak for the hajj pilgrimage.

The ministry of foreign affairs said the suspensions were temporary but provided no time frame for their expiry.

Entry is also suspended for visits to the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

Saudi Arabia has had no cases of the coronavirus.

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