Europe scrambles to contain virus as epidemic spreads beyond Italy

A man enters the infectious disease centre at the University Hospital in Duesseldorf, Germany. (AP pic)

ROME: Coronavirus cases spread beyond the outbreak’s European hotspot Italy Wednesday, as the world scrambled to contain the deadly epidemic that is fast growing outside China’s borders.

New cases linked to Italy – the hardest-hit European country – have emerged in several countries in Europe and beyond, amid warnings from health experts that nations are not ready to contain a global outbreak.

The novel coronavirus has killed over 2,700 people and infected more than 80,000, the vast majority in China.

But on Wednesday the World Health Organization said more new cases were now being clocked outside China than inside the country, where the deadly virus first emerged in December.

Greece confirmed its first case Wednesday, a woman who had recently travelled to northern Italy; while a suspected case was reported in Brazil – a traveller who recently returned from Milan.

If confirmed, it would be Latin America’s first case of the virus.

Croatia, Austria and Algeria have all reported cases linked to Italy, while a hotel in Spain remained under lockdown Wednesday after an infected Italian tourist was hospitalised with the virus.

A World Health Organization official warned that 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,” said WHO’s Bruce Aylward, who headed an international expert mission to China to assess containment measures.

Several governments have advised against travel to Italy, particularly to outbreak epicentre in the north, and introduced checks for passengers arriving from the country.

Italy has confirmed 374 cases of the disease and 12 deaths, and says the virus has spread to some southern regions as well.

Potential pandemic

But even as new cases continued to multiply beyond China’s borders, the European Union sought to head off hysteria over the outbreak.

“This is a situation of concern but we must not give in to panic,” EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told reporters in Rome on Wednesday.

“We must also be vigilant when it comes to misinformation and disinformation,” she added.

The virus is believed to have emerged in a market in Wuhan city in China’s Hubei province in late 2019, where it may have been transmitted to a human from an animal.

China imposed extraordinary quarantine measures in several cities, locking in tens of millions of people as it sought to spread the virus’ rapid spread.

The country announced Wednesday that people arriving in Beijing from countries hit by the virus epidemic will go into 14-day self-quarantine.

The WHO has praised Beijing for its response, though the communist government has faced criticism at home for silencing a whistleblowing doctor who has since died from the disease.

The WHO has called for countries to “prepare for a potential pandemic” – an epidemic that spreads throughout the world – even as new cases and deaths in China have continued to dip from previous numbers.

It warned that poor countries are particularly at risk, sparking fears of how countries in Latin America and Africa would cope with potential outbreaks.

US accuses Iran of suppressing details

In Asia, South Korea remains the worst-affected country after China, with the outbreak traced to a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu.

The city’s streets have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues at the few shops with masks for sale.

South Korea reported 284 new infections Wednesday – its largest daily increase to date – taking the overall national tally to 1,261, with the death toll rising to 12.

A 23-year-old US soldier stationed at Camp Carroll in Daegu was also infected. Some 28,500 American troops are deployed in South Korea.

Authorities urged the public to exercise extra caution, advising citizens to stay home if they have a fever or respiratory symptoms.

Meanwhile in the Middle East, Iran has emerged as a major hotspot, with a total of 139 cases and 19 deaths.

Even the country’s deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi has said he has contracted the virus.

The country has been straining to contain the epidemic since last week when it announced its first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from all over the world.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose country came to the brink of war with Iran earlier this year, said Washington was deeply concerned Tehran “may have suppressed vital details” about the outbreak there.

Several Gulf countries announced new measures to cut links with Iran in an attempt to stop the spread.

In the United States, which has 53 cases, health authorities urged local governments, businesses, and schools to take precautions, including cancelling mass gatherings or working from home.

The WHO’s advice on preventing infection includes regular hand washing and covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing.