Italy Becomes European Center of New Coronavirus

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Italy is taking drastic steps to contain an outbreak of coronavirus in the north of the country and try to stop its spread into the rest of Europe.

Italy was shocked to discover this weekend that it was the site of the largest outbreak of coronavirus outside of Asia. By Monday, seven people had died from the respiratory disease and more than 200 people tested positive in Italy.

Police stops cars trying to enter or leave the cordoned area in Casalpusterlengo, northern Italy, on Sunday. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

“It is an incredible time. Less than two months ago, the coronavirus was completely unknown to us,” World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference in Stockholm. “The past few weeks has demonstrated just how quickly a new virus can spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption.”

Ghebreyesus warned that the window of opportunity to contain the virus from spreading around the globe is “narrowing.”

Italian authorities are taking a number of draconian steps to contain the outbreak in towns in Lombardy and Veneto, two of Italy’s richest and most populous regions.

Several towns southeast of Milan were under strict quarantine as was an area in Veneto near Padua. Police wearing masks set up blockades around these areas to control the flow of people. About 50,000 people in those focal points were told to stay home and avoid contact with others.

To prevent the spread of the contagious new virus, Carnival festivities in Venice were canceled Sunday and professional soccer matches and many other sporting events called off. Milan’s famed fashion week too was affected, with some runway shows banning guests and Monday’s shows axed. Milan’s famous cathedral, the Duomo, was closed, as were schools and universities across Northern Italy. The city’s famous theater La Scala was closed too.

The outbreak hit Italy’s financial markets and was dragging down other stock markets in Europe. The stock market in Milan was down by more than 4%, renewing concerns over further economic weakening in Europe. Markets are spooked by experts warning the world may be on the brink of a pandemic as the virus, which appeared in China in December, has spread. Beyond Italy, South Korea and Iran are battling outbreaks.

Austria blocked trains from Italy briefly on Sunday. On Monday, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia were considering imposing border controls at Italian crossings. Borders are seamless throughout the European Union, allowing the free flow of goods and people, but this openness is being questioned now.

Dread and panic are setting in too. Shelves in supermarkets near the outbreak areas are emptying out fast; the streets of Milan and other northern cities are abnormally quiet. Officials in other parts of Italy are looking at testing people arriving from the infected northern areas for the virus.

Emergency measures were imposed after a 77-year-old man in Veneto died of the virus Friday. The news got grimmer as authorities announced six more deaths from the virus and a growing number of infections. The spike in cases is likely related to an increase in testing in Italy, experts said.

Italian authorities sought to tamp down fears by pointing out the virus’ low mortality rate compared to the seasonal flu. All seven people who died in Italy were elderly and at least four of them had other serious ailments.

Italian authorities were still uncertain how the coronavirus got to the outbreak areas. There is no vaccine for the virus.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urged Italians to “have faith in the political and scientific institutions, which are doing everything possible.”

The virus has been found beyond Veneto and Lombardy too, with a spike in infections recorded in neighboring Emilia-Romagna.

So far, the virus has been found as far south as Lazio, the region where Rome is, where Italy recorded its first cases on Jan. 23 when a Chinese couple from Wuhan, the disease’s epicenter, were found to be sick. They are being treated at Spallanzani hospital for infectious diseases in Rome. A third case in Rome involved a researcher who was infected in China.

Among European countries, Italy had enacted some of the most stringent measures to stop the virus from entering the country. On Jan. 31, Italy barred flights to and from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. It also began screening passengers at its airports.

In China, about 2,592 people have died from the disease and about 77,000 have been infected. More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in 26 other countries and caused the deaths of more than 20 people.

The virus, called Covid-19, is believed to have originated from wild animals and then been transferred to humans. Chinese authorities said the disease likely came from a market in Wuhan, where wild animals were sold as food. On Monday, China banned the trade and consumption of wild animals.

Scientists have not determined the origins of Covid-19 but many believe it began in bats, pangolins or some other mammal. Scientists found that the virus known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) began in bats and got to humans who ate civets, a nocturnal catlike mammal. SARS killed about 770 people in 2002 and 2003.

It appears that between 1% and 2% of infected people die from the new coronavirus, though the World Health Organization says the mortality rate is still not known. The symptoms are fever and cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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