World health body raises coronavirus risk alert to ‘very high’

Over 82,000 people now infected, with over 2,700 deaths in China and 57 deaths in 46 other countries

The coronavirus spread further on Friday, with cases reported for the first time in six more countries across three continents leading the World Health Organization (WHO) to raise its impact risk alert to “very high”.

Hopes that the epidemic that started in China late last year would be over in months, and that economic activity would quickly return to normal, have been shattered.

The WHO said it was raising its assessment of the global risk to "very high" from "high", which its head of emergencies Dr Mike Ryan said was intended to put national authorities on full alert.

“I think this is a reality check for every government on the planet – wake up, get ready, this virus may be on its way and you need to be ready,” Dr Ryan said.

The latest WHO figures indicate more than 82,000 people have been infected, with more than 2,700 deaths in China and 57 deaths in 46 other countries.

Mexico, Nigeria, Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands and Lithuania reported their first cases, all with travel history connected to Italy, the worst-affected European country. Mexico is the second Latin American country to register the virus, after Brazil, and the Nigerian case is the first in sub-Saharan Africa.

A Chinese official said some recovered patients had been found to be infectious, suggesting the epidemic may be even harder to eradicate than previously thought.

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the organisation was looking very carefully into reports of some people getting reinfected.

In addition to stockpiling medical supplies, some governments ordered schools shut and cancelled big gatherings to try to halt the flu-like disease.

Surging outside China

The outbreak appears to be easing in China, where it first emerged late last year in an market illegally trading wildlife.

Mainland China reported 327 new cases in the last 24 hours, the lowest in the country in more than a month, and China’s three biggest airlines restored some international flights.

Transmission of the coronavirus in China has largely occurred within families, according to a new report that suggests the disease is spreading less readily than some experts had feared.

Of about 344 clusters of infection in Guangdong and Sichuan provinces, up to 85 per cent occurred in households, according to the report from a team of experts convened by the WHO.

But the virus is surging elsewhere. Countries other than China now account for about three-quarters of new infections.

South Korea, with the most cases outside China, reported 571 new infections on Friday, bringing the total to 2,337, with 13 people dead.

The death toll in Italy rose to 17 and those testing positive is nearly 900. Cafes and schools have been closed as daily life has ground to a halt.

The WHO's Dr Ryan said Iran's outbreak may be worse than realised. Its toll of 34 dead is the highest outside China, although there are reports of more than 200 deaths, denied last night by Iran. A WHO team is expected to be in Iran by Sunday or Monday.

In the United States, the outbreak of the new coronavirus and efforts to prepare for its possible spread have become political in a presidential election year.

Federal government health officials said the country had insufficient testing resources, a source said. But the White House played down the coronavirus crisis and called the high level of news coverage a ploy to hurt US President Donald Trump.

Travel restrictions

Online retailer Amazon joined other companies in implementing travel restrictions for its employees.

Japan is scheduled to host the 2020 Olympics in July but Dr Ryan said discussions were being held about whether to go ahead.

Organisers will decide next week on the ceremonial torch relay, due to arrive on March 20th for a 121-day journey. Confirmed cases in Japan have risen above 200, with four deaths, excluding more than 700 cases on a quarantined cruise liner, Diamond Princess. A British man infected on the ship has died, bringing the death toll among passengers to six. –Reuters