WHO reluctant to declare COVID-19 pandemic despite spread to more countries

The latest: 

  • WHO director says COVID-19 cases outside China ‘deeply concerning’ but does not label outbreak a pandemic.
  • South Korea case number rises to 1,261, with most cases in and around city of Daegu.
  • Italy sees 12th death as case count rises to 374; concern mounts in Europe.
  • Brazil confirms 1st case in Latin America; Georgia and Norway also confirm 1st cases.
  • Public health officials say risk in Canada is low. Read more about how Canada is preparing here.

Asia reported hundreds of new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, including the first U.S. soldier to be infected, in South Korea, as outbreaks in Italy and Iran spread to more countries.

Brazil also reported a case on Wednesday, the first in Latin America. A hospital in Sao Paulo flagged the possible infection of a 61-year-old man who recently visited Italy. Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta told journalists at a 
news conference that the government has already taken measures to tackle the epidemic prior to its arrival in Brazil. 

About 81,000 people around the globe have been sickened by the coronavirus that has kept finding new targets, with the vast majority of cases and deaths in China.

The sudden rise in cases of novel coronavirus in Italy, Iran and South Korea is “deeply concerning,” but the virus can still be contained and does not amount to a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) chief said on Wednesday.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems. It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in remarks to Geneva-based diplomats.

He also said that a WHO mission to Iran — which was initially supposed to go to the Islamic Republic on Tuesday — would now travel at the weekend.

Tedros’s remarks come after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to prepare, saying that while the immediate risk there was low, the global situation suggested a pandemic was likely.

“It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when and how many people will be infected,” the CDC’s principal deputy director Anne Schuchat said on Tuesday. The United States has reported 57 cases of the virus.

U.S. President Donald Trump, back from a two-day visit to India, said on Twitter that he would meet with U.S. officials for a briefing on the coronavirus later on Wednesday and is expected to hold a news conference at 6 p.m. ET.

Dr. Michael Gardam, a Toronto-based infectious disease doctor, told CBC News Network on Wednesday that calling COVID-19 a pandemic “would make it a little bit easier for us to wrap our heads around the fact that this is a worldwide problem.”

Gardam said as more and more countries have cases, it becomes more important to focus on planning for local transmission within Canadian communities.

WATCH | Infectious disease specialist takes questions on COVID-19, travel and preparing for cases in Canada

Dr. Michael Gardam of Toronto’s Humber River Hospital says we all need to get ready for the virus gaining a foothold in Canada. 9:30

Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Canadian head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva that preparations should not wait.

“Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready,” he said.

“This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super fast to prevent a pandemic.”

Aylward said China’s “extraordinary mobilization” showed how an aggressive public health policy could curb its spread.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around Feb. 2, after authorities isolated Hubei province and imposed other containment measures.

China’s National Health Commission reported another 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

Here’s the latest in Canada

With COVID-19 appearing in more countries worldwide, contingency plans are underway for a coronavirus pandemic. 2:04

On Wednesday, public health officials in Ontario reported a fifth case of COVID-19, saying a woman in her 60s with a travel history to Iran went to the ER at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto on Monday. A sample will be tested at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg for confirmation.

“As per established infection prevention and control protocols, the patient was cared for at the hospital using all appropriate precautions, including being isolated as she was tested for COVID-19,” the statement said, adding that the woman is now in self-isolation at home.

Public health officials in B.C. announced a seventh case in that province earlier this week, saying a man in his 40s had tested positive for coronavirus. He had been a close contact of a woman who had contracted the virus.

Dozens of Canadians who tested positive for the virus while on a cruise in Japan are still under quarantine in that country, while hundreds more have been repatriated from Japan and China to complete another quarantine here.

Public health officials say the risk to the public in Canada is low. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical officer, recently said on Twitter that health authorities across the country are working together to “assess the evolving risk, incorporate emerging knowledge and adapt our response to this rapidly changing situation.”

Tam also said that 15 flight crew members who accompanied evacuees from the cruise ship in Japan have been released from the NAV Centre in Cornwall, Ont. — where repatriated passengers that did not show symptoms were under quarantine — because “they did not have unprotected contact with passengers or persons at risk of having the novel coronavirus.”

Here’s the latest from South Korea

Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear spray antiseptic solution to fight the coronavirus at a traditional market on Wednesday 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, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones, including a U.S. soldier, as authorities readied an ambitious plan to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the centre of the outbreak.

Of the new cases, 134 were from Daegu city, where the virus is believed to have been passed among members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The U.S. military said a 23-year-old soldier based in Camp Carroll, about 20 kilometres from Daegu, had been infected and was in self-quarantine at home.

The South Korean military announced 20 cases on its bases and some 9,570 people in isolation.

Here’s the latest from Japan

Students of Ariake-nishi Gakuen School in Tokyo wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, as they attend an event marking six months to go until the Olympics. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan’s professional baseball teams will play matches without spectators until March 15 due to virus concerns, Kyodo news agency reported.

Japan has nearly 170 virus cases and 691 linked to the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined this month. Six people have died in Japan, including four from the ship.

At least 47 Canadians who were on board the ship tested positive for COVID-19. Canadian passengers who did not test positive were flown home and are currently under quarantine in Ontario. Those who tested positive are in Japanese health centres.

Here’s the latest from Iran and the Middle East

People wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, as they play cards in a coffee shop on Wednesday in Salmiya, Kuwait. (Stephanie McGehee/Reuters)

President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that it could take “one, two or three weeks” to get control of the virus in Iran, a country of roughly 80 million people that has been isolated by economic sanctions.

The country has to date reported 139 cases, but that figure is doubted by some who say the problem there is likely much bigger.

“We don’t expect a miracle in the short term,” said Kianoush Jahanpour of the health ministry in Iran.

Cases linked to Iran have been reported across the region.

Kuwait’s health ministry said on Twitter on Wednesday that the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 in the country had risen to 25 after 13 more cases were confirmed. The ministry also said in a statement that the new cases were related to people travelling to Iran.

Bahrain had previously said its infections had risen to 26 after three new ones in people arriving on a flight from Iran.

Iraqi citizens are banned from travelling to a number of countries hard-hit by coronavirus — including China, South Korea, Italy and Iran —  Iraq’s health minister said on Wednesday in a decree seen by Reuters. The country also ordered the closure of public gatherings — such as movie theatres, coffee shops and clubs — and suspended schools starting Thursday until March 7. Iraq has five confirmed cases, according to the WHO.

Here’s the latest from Europe

‘It’s so easy to spread a disease,’ says woman in locked-down Italian village south of Milan. 6:14

In Europe, Italy has become an area of concern as the outbreak grows. Cafés and restaurants in Milan, a city of 1.3 million people, were half empty; far fewer people than usual were using public transport; and hotels reported a wave of cancellations. Other northern towns and cities including Venice saw similar trends.

Serie A, Italy’s top soccer league, announced that several matches were to be played behind closed doors and without fans in attendance.

A 12th person in northern Italy died as a result of contracting the coronavirus, while the number of confirmed cases has risen to 374, an increase of more than 50 from the day before, the head of the Civil Protection agency said Wednesday.

Angelo Borrelli told reporters the deceased man was 69. All those who have died so far in the outbreak, which came to light in Italy last Friday, have been elderly and most had underlying health problems.

WATCH: Will the outbreak become a pandemic?

A group of infectious disease specialists unpack why the coronavirus is causing renewed alarm around the world and what travellers should know. 11:37

Italians or people who had recently visited the country, have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one in Spain’s Canary Islands, were also locked down after cases emerged linked to Italy. Spain also reported its first three cases on the mainland.

France — with 18 total cases — reported its second death, while Georgia and Norway both confirmed their respective country’s first case.

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