South Korea to launch mass coronavirus testing, US pledges $1-billion for vaccine

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South Korea aims to test more than 200 000 members of a church at the center of a surge in coronavirus cases as countries stepped up efforts to stop a pandemic of the virus that emerged in China and is now spreading in Europe and the Middle East.

More than 80 000 people have been infected in China since the outbreak began, apparently in an illegal wildlife market in the central city of Wuhan late last year.

China’s death toll was 2  663 as of the end of Monday, up by 71 from the previous day. But the World Health Organization (WHO) has said the epidemic in China peaked between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and has been declining since.

But fast-spreading outbreaks in Iran, Italy and South Korea, and first cases in several countries in the Middle East, have fed worries of a pandemic, or worldwide spread of the virus.

“We are close to a pandemic, but there is still hope the epidemics in Iran, Italy, South Korea, etc can be controlled,” said Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.

South Korea has the most virus cases outside China and reported its 10 death and 144 new cases, for a total of 977.

In Europe, Italy has become a new front line with 220 cases reported on Monday, rising from just three on Friday. The death toll in Italy is seven.

Five cross-border viral outbreaks in the last five years and some countries affected

Asian markets showed some resilience on Tuesday after fears of a pandemic had sent global markets into a tailspin a day earlier, but the worries about the impact on China, the world’s second-biggest economy, kept investors on edge.

“If travel restrictions and supply chain disruptions spread, the impact on global growth could be more widespread and longer-lasting,” said Jonas Goltermann, senior economist at research consultancy Capital Economics in London.

Public anxiety

About 68% of South Korea’s cases are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where the outbreak is believed to have begun with a 61-year-old woman. It is not known how she became infected.

The church said it would provide authorities with the names of all members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215 000 people. The government would test them all as soon as possible, the prime minister’s office said.

“It is essential to test all of the church members in order to contain the spread of the virus and relieve public anxiety,” it said in a statement.

The US and South Korean militaries have said they may cut back joint training due to the virus, in one of the first concrete signs of its fallout on global US military activities.

The disclosure came during a visit to the Pentagon on Monday by South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, who said 13 South Korean troops had the virus.

The US military said a woman who tested positive for the virus had visited a US military base in the hard-hit city of Daegu. It was the first infection connected to US Forces Korea, which has about 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.

The US military urged troops to “use extreme caution when travelling off-installation”, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans should avoid non-essential travel to South Korea.

Iran isolation

Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about three dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Afghanistan and Iraq reported their first new coronavirus cases, all in people who had been to Iran where the toll was 14 dead, media reported, and 61 infected.

The outbreak threatens to isolate Iran further, with several countries suspending flights and closing borders. An airport representative said Dubai International Airport has suspended all flights to and from Iran, with the exception of Tehran.

In Japan, which has reported four deaths and 850 cases mostly on a cruise ship docked near Tokyo, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said it was too early to talk about cancelling the Tokyo Summer Olympics due to start on July 24.

The Japanese government urged people to telecommute or work staggered hours and Hong Kong media reported that the city’s schools would remain closed until mid-April.

The United States pledged $2.5-billion to fight the disease, with more than $1-billion going toward developing a vaccine, with other funds earmarked for therapeutics and the stockpiling of personal protective equipment such as masks.

China reported a rise in new cases in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak. But excluding those, China had just nine new infections on Monday, the lowest number since Jan. 20.

With the pace of new infections slowing, Beijing signaled it would begin to ease restrictions on travel and movement that have paralyzed economic output.

Flights in China excluding Hubei province would resume gradually as factories and businesses reopened, its aviation regulator said.

Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: here

Reuters graphics on the new coronavirus: here

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