Coronavirus deepens Iran's isolation, tests Italy, South Korea

Iranian people wear protective masks as they walk in the street in Tehran. Photo: WANA (West Asia...
Iranian people wear protective masks as they walk in the street in Tehran. Photo: WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters
Iran's coronavirus death toll climbed to 16 on Tuesday - the most outside China - increasing its international isolation as countries as far apart as South Korea and Italy stepped up emergency measures to curb the epidemic's global spread.

Believed to have come from wildlife in Wuhan city late last year, the flu-like disease has infected 80,000 people and killed close to 2700 in China. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) says the outbreak there has been declining since February 2.

Beyond mainland China, however, it has jumped to about 30 countries and territories, with some three dozen deaths, according to a Reuters tally. Spreading infections in Iran, Italy and South Korea are of particular concern.

Iran's outbreak, amid mounting US sanctions pressure, threatens to leave it further cut off. Several countries suspended flights and some of its neighbours closed their borders while Oman's Khasab port halted imports and exports with Iran.

"It is an uninvited and inauspicious visitor. God willing we will get through ... this virus," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech.

The deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, and an MP were among those infected.

Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman reported their first cases, all in people who had been to Iran.

Iran cancelled concerts and soccer matches nationwide, and schools and universities closed in many provinces. Many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing facts.

Tehran says US sanctions are hampering its response to the coronavirus by preventing imports of masks and medicines.

Meanwhile, Algeria has confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, an Italian man who arrived in the country on February 17, state television reported.

The man has been put into quarantine, state television said, citing the health minister. 

'THERE IS STILL HOPE'

Global stocks sank to their lowest in over two months on Tuesday in anxiety over the spread of the virus and its damage to the world economy.

"We are close to a pandemic but there is still hope," said Raina MacIntyre, head of a biosecurity programme at Australia's University of New South Wales, using the term for a widespread global epidemic.

A top WHO expert urged countries to step up preparations.

"Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow," Bruce Aylward, head of the joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva. "If you don't think that way, you're not going to be ready."

US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asked a Senate subcommittee to approve $US2.5 billion ($NZ3.9 billon) in funding to expand surveillance systems for the virus, help development of vaccines and boost stockpiles of protective equipment.

In South Korea, which has the most virus cases outside China with 977 infections and 10 deaths, authorities were testing all the estimated 215,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

The country's outbreak is believed to have begun in the city of Daegu with a 61-year-old woman who is a member of its congretation.

There was misery too for 34 South Korean newlyweds whose honeymoons on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius became a holiday from hell after they were put in isolation.

In Europe, Italy is the front line with more than 280 cases, and on Tuesday the death toll there rose to 10. The outbreak is spreading from its origins in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.

TOURISM, SPORT AND CULTURE IMPACTED

Italy's tourist industry, which accounts for about 13% of the economy, fears a plunge amid travel warnings and restrictions on soccer matches, cinemas and theatres.

Italy's health minister, Roberto Speranza, said neighbouring countries had agreed not to close their borders, calling such a step "disproportionate... at this time".

But airlines began restricting flights to Italy, as prices for masks and gels skyrocketed, a planned shoot in Italy for Tom Cruise's seventh outing in the Mission: Impossible series was postponed, Milan cathedral was closed and Venice carnival cancelled.

Switzerland, Austria and Romania reported their first cases, all people who had been to Italy. Croatia also recorded its first infection.

Spain reported its first case on the mainland, a woman from Barcelona who had also visited northern Italy, while a four-star hotel on Tenerife was in lockdown after a couple tested positive.

China reported a rise in new cases in Hubei province, the epicentre. But excluding those, it had just nine new infections on Monday, its fewest since January 20. The WHO's Aylward said: "China knows how to keep people alive."

Beijing said restrictions on travel and movement that have paralysed activity in the world's second-largest economy should begin to be lifted.

An official with the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control noted that supermarkets were becoming busier - but offered some pointers for shoppers.

"Choose a supermarket with relatively low foot traffic and good ventilation, and prepare a shopping list before actually going to shop," Liu Xiaofeng told reporters.

"Don't hang about. Don't chit-chat."

 

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