Experts warn of small window of time before a coronavirus pandemic

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Concern over coronavirus spread grows with cases jumping in South Korea, Italy and Iran

International concern about the spread of coronavirus outside China grew on Sunday with sharp rises in infections in three countries – South Korea, Italy and Iran.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a small window to stop the spread of the virus before it becomes a pandemic. 

Director-General of WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the “window of opportunity” to contain the international spread of the outbreak was “narrowing”.

He warned that if countries did not quickly mobilize to fight the spread of the virus: “this outbreak could go in any direction. It could … be messy”. 

“The cases that we see in the rest of the world, although the numbers are small, but not linked to Wuhan or China, it’s very worrisome,” Tedros Ghebreyesus said at a news conference at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva on Friday. 

South Korea went on high alert after the number of infections surged over 600 with six deaths. Italy saw a rise to 132 cases and imposed stringent curbs in parts of the country to try to stop the spread. Iran has reported 43 cases, with eight deaths.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) in Dhaka has advised Bangladeshi nationals to limit their travel from Bangladesh to other countries.

In China, which has seen the vast majority of cases, authorities reported 648 new infections – higher than a day earlier – but only 18 were outside of Hubei province, the lowest number outside the epicentre since authorities began publishing data a month ago and locked down large parts of the country.

China’s President Xi Jinping said that while measures to deal with the virus had been effective, the battle to contain it was still at a crucial stage. State run television urged people to avoid complacency, drawing attention to people gathering in public areas and tourist spots without wearing masks.

The virus has killed 2,442 people in China, which has reported 76,936 cases, and has slammed the brakes on the world’s second largest economy. It has spread to some 26 other countries and territories, with a death toll of around two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

It has been fatal in 2% of reported cases, with the elderly and ill the most vulnerable, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which said on Saturday it was worried by the detection of infections without a clear link to China.

IEDCR: Avoid nonessential travels abroad 

At a press briefing on Sunday, IEDCR Director Prof Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora said, “We urge everyone to follow the suggestions of the Directorate General of Health Services to prevent coronavirus infections. People are particularly asked to maintain caution while travelling abroad.”

Clarifying that it was not an alert or a formal ban, she said: “Refrain from undertaking travels that are not essential.”

For essential travel abroad, the IEDCR director recommended that people follow suggestions on prevention of COVID-19 and asked people to directly contact the IEDCR hotline for any queries on coronavirus. 

The hotline numbers are: 01927711784, 01927711785, 01937000011, and 01937110011.

Worldwide alert

South Korea’s president said the government had raised the disease alert to the highest level, allowing authorities to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated “special care zones” on Friday.

Health officials reported 169 new infections, bringing the total to 602, having doubled from Friday to Saturday.

Concern about the reach and rapid spread of the coronavirus also grew in Europe and the Middle East.

In Italy, schools and universities were closed and some soccer matches postponed in the affected northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, the country’s industrial heartland.

Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto with a combined population of some 50,000 have effectively been placed under quarantine, with locals urged to stay home and special permission needed to enter or leave the designated areas.

Iran reported a total of 43 infections, with eight deaths – all since Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey imposed travel and immigration restrictions on Iran, while Oman on Sunday urged its citizens to steer clear of countries with high infection rates and said arrivals from those nations would be quarantined.

The WHO says the virus is severe or critical in only a fifth of infected patients, and mild in the rest, but the potential economic impact of the disease was prominent at a meeting of G20 finance ministers in Riyadh.