COVID-19 outbreak has ‘pandemic potential’

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Countries with their first confirmed cases of coronavirus should “move swiftly” to contain the virus, WHO’s director-general said Thursday, noting that the concern over cases outside of China is growing as the number of people infected mounts.

Within the past 24 hours, seven countries — Brazil, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Norway, Pakistan and Romania — have reported cases for the first time, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at a daily briefing. 

For the past two days, Tedros said, the number of new cases reported in the rest of the world has exceeded the number of new cases reported in China.

“This virus does not respect borders,” he said. “The point is not only to prevent cases arriving on your shores — the point is what you do when you have cases.”

The outbreak — which the WHO has declared a global health emergency — has “pandemic potential,” Tedros said, noting that the WHO is working with countries around the world to prepare.

He reiterated his message that fear is not the answer, and called for calm as countries prepare.

Tedros noted that several countries — including Belgium, Cambodia, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam — have gone two weeks without reporting a new case. He said this signalled that “aggressive, early measures can prevent transmission before coronavirus gets a foothold.”

As of 6 a.m. Geneva time, China had reported 78,630 cases to WHO, with 2,747 deaths, Tedros said. Outside of China, there were 3,474 cases in 44 countries, with 54 deaths.

WATCH:  Infectious disease doctor explains what’s happening with COVID-19

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch looks at the implications of COVID-19’s global reach and asymptomatic transmission of the disease. 2:18

Earlier, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country, which has 23 cases of the virus, was operating on the basis of a pandemic and hospitals were under orders to ensure enough medical supplies, personal protective equipment and staff.

“There is every indication that the world will soon enter a pandemic phase of the coronavirus,” Morrison told a news conference in Canberra.

In the U.S., officials said Thursday they were ramping up efforts to guard Americans against a local spread of the virus, dispatching test kits nationwide and promising funding legislation within the next two weeks.

At least 40 public health labs should now be able to test specimens for coronavirus, and that could more than double as soon as Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told a House of Representatives committee.

He said a newly manufactured test from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can be sent to 93 public health labs as soon as Monday, and a privately manufactured test based on the new CDC test could be sent to those same labs as early as tomorrow.

Ontario reports 6th case of coronavirus

Ontario reported a sixth case of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total in Canada to 13. The remaining seven cases are in British Columbia.

The sixth case, a man in his 60s, is married to the fifth person in Ontario to test positive for COVID-19.

“We are working alongside Toronto Public Health, who is now and will continue to be in regular contact with this individual during their self-isolation period,” Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said in a statement.

WATCH: How Canada is preparing for a coronavirus outbreak

Canadian public health officials detailed plans for preparations for a coronavirus outbreak here. 1:52

Thursday’s case announcement comes a day after Canadian health officials said they are working on containment, but are also preparing for the possibility of more cases.

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo said Wednesday that Canadian officials would consider asking people to use “social distancing” measures in the event there was more widespread transmission of the virus. That can include things like cancelling mass gatherings and public events.

“So that’s all in the future. We’re certainly not there yet, but we are actually taking a close look and making sure we’re prepared for that,” Njoo told MPs at the House health committee.

Closing the borders isn’t the right answer, he said, noting that it’s never proven to be effective as a public health tool. People are being asked to tell Canada Border Service Agency officers if they have been to Hubei province in China, or if they are having symptoms like fever, cough or breathing problems.

The virus, which does not yet have a cure or a vaccine, keeps spreading to new places around the world.  Read on for a look at what’s happening in some of the countries dealing with the most cases of the novel coronavirus.

Here’s what’s happening in China

In addition to providing gloves, tape and disinfectant, ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing is installing between 100 and 200 plastic shields per day in Beijing cars. 0:30

China reported 433 new cases, bringing the total case number on the mainland to 78,497, the country’s National Health Commission said. More than 32,000 of those patients have recovered and were discharged from hospital, the health commission said. The WHO later put forth a higher figure, pointing to 78,630 cases in China. 

Of the new cases in China reported by the health commission, 383 were in the epicentre of the city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December.  

Here’s what’s happening in South Korea

A South Korean child wears a mask to prevent catching the coronavirus while riding a scooter Thursday in Seoul. The government has raised the coronavirus alert to the ‘highest level’ as confirmed case numbers keep rising. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

South Korea reported 505 more coronavirus cases Thursday, bringing its total to 1,766.

Most of the new cases were in the country’s fourth-biggest city, Daegu, where the outbreak has hit hardest and the national government has mobilized public health tools to help the region’s overwhelmed medical system.

The country on Thursday also confirmed its thirteenth death; most of them are still in and near Daegu.

WATCH: South Korea launches roadside tests

Amid soaring demand for virus testing, Goyang, South Korea, is reducing wait times with a roadside test. 0:25

Here’s what’s happening in Japan

Japan is announcing the closure of schools nationwide to help control the spread of the new virus. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he asked all elementary, middle and high schools to remain closed until spring holidays begin in late March.

Health officials in Japan have reported 186 cases. That doesn’t include the more than 700 cases linked to the Diamond Princess cruise ship. 

Craig Lee, one of more than 50 Canadians who tested positive for COVID-19 while on the ship, is still under quarantine at a Japanese health facility. He told CBC News Network he has no symptoms and feels well.

WATCH: Canadian Craig Lee talks to CBC News about his time in isolation in Japan

‘These people are so supportive,’ says Craig Lee, who is waiting to go home as soon as he clears the latest round of tests.   2:11

There was also a report that a woman in Osaka testing positive for COVID-19 for a second time. It’s the first known recurrence in Japan, though Reuters reports that similar cases have occurred in China.

Here’s what’s happening in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East

A Tehran city worker cleans a bus to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 illness on Thursday. Iran has faced questions over its tally of cases as neighbouring countries report an uptick of cases linked to travel to Iran. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia on Thursday banned foreign pilgrims from entering the kingdom to visit Islam’s holiest sites over the new coronavirus, potentially disrupting the plans of millions of faithful ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and as the annual hajj pilgrimage looms.

The decision showed the growing worry across the Mideast about the virus as Iran confirmed that infected cases in the country spiked by over 100, to 254 now. A total of 26 people have died so far, it said. That pushes the region’s overall cases to above 350. Iran’s death toll is highest outside of China, where the outbreak began.

WATCH: WHO officials explain high mortality rate in Iran

‘You only see the severe end of the spectrum’ when epidemics start, says Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergency Program. 0:52

Saudi Arabia’s barring of pilgrims from Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba that the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims pray toward five times a day, and also the holy city of Medina, appeared unprecedented in modern history. The kingdom’s Al Saud ruling family stakes their legitimacy in overseeing and protecting the sites. Authorities also suspended entry to travellers from nations affected by the new virus who hold tourist visas for the kingdom.

It appeared Saudi officials worried about the risk of pilgrims spreading the virus as they had in Iran. The virus’ epicentre in the Islamic Republic is the holy Shia city of Qom, where the faithful in reverence reach out to kiss and touch a famous shrine. That shrine and others have remained open, despite Iran’s civilian government calling for them to be closed.

There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak.

A Kuwaiti health ministry official said Thursday that the country has 43 confirmed cases as of Thursday, adding that all the cases involved people who had been to Iran.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Health Ministry on Thursday announced the first coronavirus case in the capital, Baghdad, bringing the overall number of cases reported in the country to six. All have been linked to Iran.

Here’s what’s happening in Italy and Europe

A woman wearing a protective mask uses her mobile phone in Turin on Thursday. Italy is seeing an increase of COVID-19 cases, primarily in the country’s north. (Massimo Pinca/Reuters)

In Italy, the Civil Protection Agency said two more people have died, bringing the country’s death toll linked to the coronavirus up to 14. Reuters reported Thursday the number of confirmed cases has risen to 528 from some 420 announced on Wednesday, the vast majority in northern Italy.

A rash of countries have reported their first cases in the past couple of days with the latest being Denmark, in a man who returned from a ski holiday in Italy, and Estonia, in a man returning from Iran, local media reported.

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