BEIJING, China (2nd UPDATE) – Fears mounted Saturday, February 22, over the rise of new cases and fatalities outside China from the new coronavirus outbreak, as the World Health Organization warned of a shrinking window to stem the spread of the deadly disease.
The warning came as the first European died from the new COVID-19 strain, which first emerged in December in central China but has now spread to over 25 countries and caused more than a dozen deaths outside China.
On Saturday, Italian news agency ANSA reported that a woman in the northern region of Lombardy had died after contracting the virus, a day after a 78-year-old man from the nearby Veneto region became the first local person in Europe to succumb to the illness.
The new wave of cases in Italy has also triggered a lockdown of ten towns – a move with echoes of China's sealing off of entire cities in central Hubei province, the epicentre of the virus where millions remain under quarantine.
A second person also died in South Korea, where the numbers of cases spiked, authorities said Saturday, while the death toll in Iran reached five and a number of new cases were reported across the Middle East.
As cases surged outside China, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the "window of opportunity" to contain the international spread of the outbreak was "narrowing."
He cautioned that if countries did not quickly mobilise to fight the reach of the virus, "this outbreak could go in any direction. It could even be messy."
The outbreak has now claimed 2,345 lives in China and infected more than 76,000 people.
The number of new cases in China outside Hubei has been generally declining, although new outbreaks have emerged in several prisons and hospitals.
On Saturday Chinese authorities reported nearly 400 fresh cases nationwide, less than half the previous day and just 31 outside Hubei.
A WHO-led team of experts are to visit Wuhan, the capital of the province, on Saturday.
Cases of the deadly virus were reported in a range of countries in the Middle East on Friday, with the first cases in Israel and Lebanon.
Iraq and Kuwait, which share borders with Iran, were on high alert for a potential outbreak after banning travel to and from the Islamic republic, although they have not confirmed any cases domestically.
More than 400 people have been infected in South Korea, many linked to a hospital and a religious sect, and two people have died, making it the hardest-hit country outside China.
The latest group of passengers disembarked from the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan on Saturday.
Several Australians and an Israeli evacuated earlier this week after being cleared in Japan tested positive for coronavirus on landing back in their home countries – fuelling questions about Tokyo's policy of allowing former passengers to return home.
Two former Japanese passengers in their 80s have died.
The British government said an evacuation flight left Japan Saturday, with 32 British and European passengers on board.
As fears spread of the virus in Japan, Tokyo 2020 Olympic organisers postponed training for their army of volunteers due to the coronavirus outbreak – but said that there was "no consideration" of canceling the Games.
Beijing has so far downplayed any possible long-term impact on the Chinese economy from the outbreak, which has paralysed much of the country.
Chen Yulu, China's deputy central bank governor, told state broadcaster CCTV on Saturday that economic growth would "quickly rebound."
China's financial system has "extremely strong toughness" to respond to risk, he said.
The country's ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee, has also dismissed the potential economic fallout, urging local governments earlier this month to "continue striving" to achieve this year's economic development targets.
Chinese officials are also keen to show the country is returning to work.
Almost all the country's chain supermarkets have now reopened, commerce official Wang Bin said Saturday, as well as half the country's department stores and shopping malls.
But only a third of rail construction and 15% of civil aviation projects have re-started work.
Beijing was already tackling a slowing economy before the virus struck and has closed many businesses, factories, tourist sites and travel routes in a bid to contain the epidemic.
In a letter to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thanking the organisation for its financial support, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China was at a "critical moment" in the fight against the outbreak.
In the latest unprecedented measure, state media said Wuhan officials were bringing in seven river cruise ships to house medical workers.
The People's Daily said that the ships will provide another 1,469 beds and help accommodate some of the tens of thousands of medical workers brought into the city to help treat coronavirus patients. – Rappler.com