(AFP) — Fresh deaths and a surge in new coronavirus cases in Iran, Japan and South Korea on Tuesday fuelled fears of a pandemic as the disease took root in more countries.
The rapid spread abroad came as the World Health Organization announced that the epidemic had peaked at its epicentre in China, where it has killed more than 2,600 people and infected over 77,000 others.
But the situation has worsened elsewhere with nearly 2,700 other cases and more than 40 deaths globally, prompting restrictions on travellers from infected nations, the cancellation of football matches and national efforts to isolate suspected patients.
South Korea, Italy and Iran have each logged sharp increases in infections and deaths, while several Middle Eastern countries also reported their first confirmed COVID-19 cases.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted the virus could still be contained, praising China’s drastic quarantine measures in several cities for helping to prevent an even bigger spread.
“For the moment we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large-scale deaths,” Tedros told reporters in Geneva on Monday.
He added, however, that countries should do everything they can to “prepare for a potential pandemic” — a term is used to describe an illness that spreads across numerous communities.
The White House plans to spend US$2.5 billion to combat the epidemic, according to US media. There are 53 cases in the United States so far.
Iran has emerged as a major hotspot with the death toll rising to 15 on Tuesday as three more people succumbed to the disease.
The country has been scrambling to contain the epidemic since last week when it announced its first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad.
Iran has confirmed 61 cases so far, making its mortality rate exponentially higher than anywhere else in the world and raising suspicion that many more people have contracted the disease there.
A WHO team was due in Iran on Tuesday.
Several neighbours have enacted measures to block arrivals from Iran but the virus has already spread to Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The WHO has warned that poorer countries with weak health care systems are the most at risk.