Fears have mounted over the rise of new cases and fatalities outside China from the new coronavirus outbreak, as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a shrinking window to stem the spread of the deadly disease.
The warning came as the first deaths from the new COVID-19 strain were reported in the Middle East and Europe. COVID-19, as the new coronavirus is known, first emerged in December in central China but has now spread to over 25 countries and caused more than a dozen deaths outside the country.
The death toll reached five in Iran, and a number of cases were reported across the Middle East, including the first infections in Israel and Lebanon. On Friday, a 78-year old Italian man died after testing positive for the virus and a second death was reported on Saturday.
A second person died in South Korea, authorities reported on Saturday, as the number of cases in the country spiked to 433.
Italy has locked down 10 towns and asked more than 50,000 people to stay home – echoing China’s lockdown of entire cities in Hubei province at the centre of the outbreak. The second victim, a woman, died in the northern region of Lombardy, a spokesman for the Italian Civil Protection agency said on Saturday.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the “window of opportunity” to contain the international spread of the outbreak was “narrowing”, as cases surged across the Middle East and in South Korea.
He warned that if countries did not quickly mobilise to fight the spread of the virus, “this outbreak could go in any direction. It could … be messy”.
Middle East on alert
The first confirmed cases of the deadly virus were confirmed in Israel and Lebanon on Friday.
Iran saw 10 new cases on Saturday, taking the number to 28 infections and five deaths.
Reporting from Tehran, Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari cited sources confirming that schools and universities in the holy city of Qom, where two of the deaths were reported, were closed.
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Reports were also circulating that authorities are “looking at restricting visitors to the holy shrines of the city – to try and limit people’s movement and control this disease”, she added.
Iran has suspended religious pilgrimage trips to Iraq over coronavirus fears, an official who oversees pilgrimage trips said on Saturday, according to the Fars news agency.
Iraq and Kuwait, which share borders with Iran, were on high alert for a potential outbreak after banning travel to and from Iran, although they have not confirmed any cases domestically.
Kuwait’s civil aviation authority decided to ban international travellers as well residents or those with entry permits who had been in Iran during the past two weeks, adding that any Kuwaiti national arriving from Iran will be directed to isolation.
Major spike in South Korea
South Korea on Saturday reported a major jump in viral infections in the past four days, taking the total tally to at least 433.
Many of the cases have been linked to a church and a hospital in and around the fourth-largest city where schools were closed and worshippers and others told to avoid mass gatherings.
Of the 142 new cases in South Korea, 131 are from Daegu and nearby regions, which have emerged as the latest front in the widening global fight against COVID-19.
Reporting from Daegu, Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride said some hospitals in the city have been designated to deal only with cases of coronavirus, “with wards and rooms that specialise in treating infectious diseases”.
“There are testing centres where people come and get tested to see whether or not they have the virus,” he added.
South Korea’s Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said on Saturday that the outbreak had entered a serious new phase but expressed cautious optimism that it can be contained to the region surrounding Daegu, where the first case was reported on Tuesday.
Some 800 area schools, due to start a new academic year on March 2, delayed their opening by a week.
Al Jazeera and news agencies