Italy, Iran and S. Korea New Centers of Viral Spread

BANGKOK (AP) — South Korea struggled to find enough beds for its sick, Italy grappled with a rising number of deaths and concern grew over an expanding outbreak in the United States on Wednesday as the coronavirus that tormented China expanded elsewhere.

As the number of new cases drops in China, attention has shifted to South Korea, Italy and Iran, sites of major clusters of disease that the World Health Organization says account for 80% of new cases outside China.

South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant against the new coronavirus in Seoul on Wednesday, a public relations move, as there are no indications that the virus lives on streets. (AP photo/Ahn Young-joon)

“People are afraid and uncertain. Fear is a natural human response to any threat,” said WHO leader Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “But as we get more data, we are understanding this virus and the disease it causes more and more.”

WHO said the death rate from COVID-19 was about 3.4%, making it more fatal than the common flu, though data suggest it’s not as easy to catch.

In Daegu, the South Korean city at the center of that country’s outbreak, a shortage of hospital space meant about 2,300 patients were being cared for in other facilities while they awaited a hospital bed. Attending a meeting on quarantine strategies in Daegu, Prime Minister Chung Se-Kyun said: “We can absolutely overcome this situation. … We will win the war against COVID-19.”

South Korea reported 435 new infections Wednesday, down from its high of 851 a day earlier.

A total of 5,621 people in South Korea have contracted the virus and 32 have died.

Italy reported 45 fatalities Tuesday, bringing its total to 79, the most outside of China. The outbreak in Italy has been concentrated in the northern region of Lombardy, but fear of the virus’ spread led the Vatican to insist Pope Francis was not infected.

The pontiff became ill last week, but the Vatican said Francis had only a cold.

The expanding problem in Europe and beyond has led some governments to try to control supplies of necessities. The governments of the Czech Republic, Russia and Germany announced bans Wednesday covering protective gear such as masks.

India tightened the export of 26 key drug ingredients used in pharmaceutical manufacturing, a potentially disruptive move taken as its caseload rose to 28 Wednesday from an earlier tally of just 5.

China reported 119 new cases Wednesday, all but five in the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan. In a sign of the shifting threat, Beijing’s health commissioner said two new cases in the Chinese capital apparently were infected abroad, in Iran and Italy.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency said Hubei province, where Wuhan is, was expected to gradually shut down its hastily built temporary hospitals, where thousands of beds were empty.

“We believe this decline is real,” WHO expert Maria Van Kerkhove said of China. The country has reported 80,270 infections and 2,981 fatalities. It has about 85% of the world’s cases and 95% of deaths from COVID-19.

Doctors working in Wuhan told reporters by video conference Wednesday that hospitals there have an increasing number of empty beds but said there is always the possibility of a new spike of infections.

“The war is not over,” said Dr. Cao Bin, who specializes in respiratory research. “The disease is not only a Wuhan disease, and not only a China disease, but also a global disease.”

The outbreak was blamed for market instability around the globe. Asian stock markets were mixed Wednesday after Wall Street continued its zigzag performance, despite an interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve. Businesses of all types were experiencing pain as travel and tourism were spurned and worried consumers changed their habits.

“People are afraid to touch anything or take anything from us,” said Maedeh Jahangiri, a perfume seller at an upscale mall in the Iranian capital of Tehran. “Everyone is at a loss.”

Iran has reported 2,336 cases of the virus, including at least 23 members of parliament. Many experts believe Iran is underreporting its numbers.

In Spain, dozens of health workers were quarantined or being monitored after at least five were infected with the virus. In France, the Louvre did not open as scheduled Wednesday as workers fret about catching the virus from visitors. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that cases could spread, unveiling a 25-page plan for a worst-case scenario in which retired doctors and nurses would be called back to work and police would stop investigating minor crimes to help deal with an outbreak.

“We’re committed to doing everything possible … to prepare for all eventualities,” Johnson said.

More than 120 cases have been reported in the United States. Nine people have died, all in and around Seattle. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were expected to reach agreement Wednesday on a $7.5 billion emergency bill to fund work on a virus vaccine and other measures.

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