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Coronavirus: ‘Narrowing window’ to contain outbreak, WHO says

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Passengers wearing face masks walk between columns at a subway station being renovated in Seoul

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Getty Images

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Cases of coronavirus have risen sharply in South Korea, where the outbreak is worsening

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern at the number of coronavirus cases with no clear link to China or other confirmed cases.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the window of opportunity to contain the virus was “narrowing”.

Chinese health authorities reported a decrease in deaths and new cases of the coronavirus on Saturday.

But cases are on the rise in South Korea, Italy, Iran and other countries.

Outside China, more than 1,200 cases of the virus have been confirmed in 26 countries and there have been eight deaths, the WHO says.

They include two deaths in South Korea, which has the biggest cluster of confirmed cases apart from China and a cruise ship quarantined in Japan.

On Saturday, South Korea reported 142 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, bringing the national tally to 346.

An evacuation flight carrying 32 British and other European passengers has taken off from Japan and is due to land in England later on Saturday.

On Friday, doctors in Italy said a 78-year-old man became the first person in the country to die from the new coronavirus, Ansa news agency reported.

Earlier Italy had announced 16 more cases and its health minister said schools and offices would be closed and sports events cancelled in the affected regions.

China has reported 76,288 cases including 2,345 deaths. The new virus, which originated last year in Hubei province in China, causes a respiratory disease called Covid-19.

What did the WHO chief say?

Dr Tedros said the number of coronavirus cases outside China was “relatively small” but the pattern of infection was worrying.

“We are concerned about the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to or contact with a confirmed case,” he said.

The new deaths and infections in Iran were “very concerning”, he said.

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AFP

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Iraq has been checking people at its border with Iran

But he insisted that the measures China and other countries had put in place meant there was still a “fighting chance” of stopping further spread and called on countries to put more resources into preparing for possible outbreaks.

What is the latest in South Korea?

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun declared a public health emergency as the total number of cases surpassed 300 on Saturday.

The southern cities of Daegu and Cheongdo have been declared “special care zones”. The streets of Daegu are now largely abandoned.

The nation’s capital, Seoul, banned demonstrations in central areas.

Two cases were also reported in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, and one on the Island of Jeju on Saturday – the first in both places.

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Media captionPeople in Daegu have voiced concern over the spread of the virus

All military bases are in lockdown after three soldiers tested positive.

About 9,000 members of a religious group were told to self-quarantine, after the sect was identified as a coronavirus hotbed.

The authorities suspect the current outbreak in South Korea originated in Cheongdo, pointing out that a large number of sect followers attended the funeral of the founder’s brother from 31 January to 2 February.

The sect – known as Shincheonji – which has been accused of being a cult, said it had now shut down its Daegu branch and that services in other regions would be held online or individually at home.

As of Friday, more than 400 members of the church were showing symptoms of the disease, though tests were still ongoing, the city mayor said.

Hand sanitizers and warning signs

By Hyung Eun Kim, BBC Korean Service, Seoul

Many people in South Korea are wearing masks on a daily basis.

Hand sanitizers have been placed at public transport stops and building entrances.

Warning government signs are everywhere. They say: “Three ways to prevent further infection: wear a mask at all times; wash your hands properly with soap for more than 30 seconds; and cover yourself when coughing.”

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EPA

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New norm: Mask-wearing crowd in Seoul

Koreans have also developed several apps and websites that tell you how much risk you face where you are. They show where the infected people are within a 10km radius.

“I can’t miss work, what I can do is minimise contact with others and stay at home during the weekend,” Seung-hye Lim, a Seoul resident, told the BBC.

“I do wonder if we reacted too laxly initially or if it really is because of the specific service practices of the Shincheonji sect.”

So-young Sung, a mother of two in Seoul, told the BBC: “It feels like my daily life is collapsing.”

She said she was struggling to find pharmacies that had masks.

She added that checking coronavirus-related alarms from her children’s schools and kindergartens was now a daily routine for her.

What about the Iran cases?

In Iran the outbreak is centred on the holy city of Qom, south of the capital Tehran, which is a popular destination for Shia Muslims in the region.

Iran reported two more deaths in Qom on Friday, adding to the two deaths it reported on Thursday. A total of 18 cases have been confirmed in the country.

Lebanon has reported its first confirmed case – a 45-year-old woman who was detected as she arrived in Beirut from Qom. The UAE, Israel and Egypt have also reported cases.

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EPA

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Lebanon has confirmed its first case – a woman returning from the Iranian city of Qom

Meanwhile Canadian officials said one of the nine cases there was a woman who had recently returned from Iran.

WHO officials said both Iran and Lebanon had the basic capacity to detect the virus and the WHO was contacting them to offer further assistance.

But Dr Tedros said the organisation was concerned about the virus’s possible spread in countries with weaker health systems.

What about China and elsewhere?

The virus has now hit the country’s prison system, with more than 500 inmates confirmed infected.

They include 230 patients in a women’s prison in Wuhan. More cases have been found in a prison in the eastern province of Shandong and the south-eastern province of Zhejiang.

Some 36 people at a hospital in Beijing have also tested positive.

Senior officials have been sacked for mishandling management of the outbreak.

Passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship who have tested negative continue to disembark the ship in Yokohama after more than 14 days quarantined on board.

However, 18 American evacuees from the ship tested positive after arriving in the US, officials said. More than 300 other US nationals have arrived back in the US after disembarking.

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Media captionCoronavirus: Quarantined passengers released from Japan ship

More than 150 Australian passengers have been evacuated from the ship and have already arrived in Darwin, where they will begin two more weeks of quarantine.

Australian officials said on Friday that six people had reported feeling unwell on arrival in Darwin and were immediately tested. Two of those people tested positive despite having received negative tests before leaving Japan.

The first batch of people from Hong Kong have also flown back to the city, where they will similarly be quarantined.


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