By Hyonhee Shin and Ryan Woo
SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – South Korea aims to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the centre 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 by the end of Monday, up 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.
However, fast-spreading outbreaks in Iran, Italy and South Korea, and first cases in several Middle East countries, 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 Programme at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.
South Korea has the most virus cases outside China and reported its tenth death and 144 new cases, for a total of 977. President Moon Jae-in said the situation was “very grave”.
In Europe, Italy has become a new front line, with 220 cases reported on Monday, up from just three on Friday. The death toll in Italy is seven.
Global stock markets stabilised on Tuesday after a wave of early selling petered out and Wall Street futures managed a solid bounce after a sharp selloff the previous day on fears about the spreading coronavirus.
“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.
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 the names of all its 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,” it said in a statement. Authorities said they were testing up to 13,000 people a day.
The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military said a woman who tested positive for the virus had visited one of its bases in the hard-hit city of Daegu. It was the first infection connected to U.S. Forces Korea, which has about 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.
The U.S. military urged troops to “use extreme caution” off base, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans should avoid non-essential travel to South Korea.
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.
Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman reported their first new coronavirus cases, all in people who had been to Iran where the toll was 14 dead, media said, and 61 infected.
The outbreak threatens to isolate Iran further. The United Arab Emirates, which has 13 virus cases, suspended all flights with Iran for at least a week, state media said.
Iraq extended an entry ban on travellers from China and Iran to those from five other countries over virus fears, its health ministry said.
In Japan, which has reported four deaths and 850 cases mostly linked to a cruise ship, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said it was too early to talk about cancelling the Tokyo Olympics due to start on July 24.
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 epicentre of the outbreak. But excluding those, China had just nine new infections on Monday, its fewest since Jan. 20.
With the pace of new infections slowing, Beijing said restrictions on travel and movement that have paralysed economic activity should begin to be lifted.
“Low-risk areas … are to restore order in production and life, cancel transport restrictions and help enterprises,” state planner official Ou Xiaoli told a briefing.
[Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html]
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul; Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates & Simon Cameron-Moore)