Coronavirus Update as Death Toll Rises in Italy, WHO Could Declare Outbreak a Pandemic

New cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus have been confirmed in South Korea, Italy and Iran, with the death toll rising to seven in Italy and to four among the hundreds of infected Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued elevated travel warnings to some of these countries, which are the latest hot spots to see a rapid spread of the virus in recent days.

The H10 Costa Adeje Palace hotel in Tenerife, one of Spain's Canary Islands, was reported to be on lockdown on Tuesday after one of its guests, an Italian national had been diagnosed with the virus, Reuters reports.

"We are checking people who had contact with the patient including the people in the hotel," a spokeswoman for Canary Island's health department confirmed, Reuters reports.

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The latest incident is the third confirmed case in Spain. The other two cases include a German tourist in La Gomera (another Canary Island) and a British man on the Spanish island of Majorca.

As of Tuesday, Italy saw its coronavirus death toll rise to seven and reported its first cases in southern Italy within Tuscany and Sicily. The Diamond Princess, which saw more than 3,700 people (including around 600 Americans) quarantined in Japan for two weeks until February 19, reported its fourth death from the virus, according to Reuters.

The coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan city in the Hubei province of China, has infected more than 79,000 people globally, 77,262 of whom were infected in China, according to the latest report by the World Health Organization on February 24.

There have been at least 2,069 confirmed cases across 29 countries outside China, with 2,595 deaths reported in China and 23 deaths outside China, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report.

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The global health body has yet to declare the virus as a pandemic, but noted that it "absolutely" has "pandemic potential." A pandemic is defined by WHO as "the worldwide spread of a new disease."

"Our decision about whether to use the word 'pandemic' to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole society," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing on Monday.

"For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or deaths.

"Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely it has. Are we there yet from our assessment? Not yet," Ghebreyesus said.

South Korea

The recent surge in outbreaks within South Korea, Italy and Iran have caused a wave of fear across the globe, including in the U.S. which has raised its travel warning levels.

On Monday, the CDC raised its travel warning for South Korea to Level 3, which recommends travelers "avoid all nonessential travel to South Korea," adding that "there is limited access to adequate medical care in affected areas."

The U.S. State Department also raised its travel warning for South Korea to Level 2, which advises travelers to "Exercise Increased Caution."

"Many cases of COVID-19 have been associated with travel to or from mainland China or close contact with a travel-related case, but sustained community spread has been reported in South Korea. Sustained community spread means that people in South Korea have been infected with the virus, but how or where they became infected is not known, and the spread is ongoing," the department warns on its website.

As of Tuesday, there are at least 977 confirmed cases in South Korea, according to the latest report by the Korea Centres for Disease Control (KCDC), making it the country with the second highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, after China.

Most of the cases are concentrated in the city of Daegu and have been linked to members of a religious group known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ).

Suspicions that the secretive cult has been a major source of the recent outbreak were raised after hundreds of people were reportedly infected by a 61-year-old woman who attended an SCJ service in Daegu. At least 450 of the confirmed cases have been identified as members of the SCJ.

Health officials in the country plan to test more than 200,000 members of the church for the virus this week, the office of South Korea's prime minister confirmed in a statement seen by Reuters.

"It is essential to test all of the church members in order to contain the spread of the virus and relieve public anxiety," the statement said, Reuters reports.

The United States Forces Korea (USFK) military base also reported its first coronavirus case after an infected 61-year-old woman was reported to have visited the Camp Walker's Post Exchange shop on the base on February 12 and 15.

The base raised its risk level on Monday to " 'high' for USFK peninsula-wide as a prudent measure to protect the force," it notes on its website.

"KCDC and USFK health professionals are actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed," the USFK states.

Italy

As of Tuesday, Italy saw the seventh person die after contracting the coronavirus. The latest death was that of a 62-year-old man from northern Italy's Lombardy region, where more than 50,000 people across 10 towns (along with one other town in the neighboring Veneto region) have been on lockdown following a recent spike in confirmed cases in Italy over the weekend.

The latest death came three hours after three other infected men were reported dead, all of whom were said to be from Lombardy and in their 80s, TheLocal.it reports.

Two new cases of infection were also reported in southern Italy, including in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, where a tourist from Bergamo, Italy on a group tour tested positive. All of the other tourists on the tour have also been quarantined. The other confirmed case was reported to be a 60-year-old man in Tuscany who was said to own companies in Asia and believed to have returned from a trip in East Asia, Italy's Il Tempo reports.

There are at least 270 confirmed cases in Italy as of Tuesday morning, according to the country's health ministry, TheLocal.it reports.

On Sunday, the CDC raised its travel warning level for Italy to Level 2, which advises travelers "Practice Enhanced Precautions," adding that "Older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel."

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan February 2020
Two people, both wearing respiratory masks, stroll along Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, on February 25, 2020 in Milan, Italy. Getty Images

Iran and the Middle East

The total number of deaths from the coronavirus in Iran was reported to be 12 as of Monday, according to the Iranian government.

The figure came despite claims made by a lawmaker from the city Qom (which has been the epicenter of the virus in the nation) that the death toll was 50, the Associated Press reports. The country's health ministry said the total number of infected is 61 but the death toll remains 12.

Concerns over the spread of the virus across the Middle East were raised after Iraq and Afghanistan reported their first confirmed cases on Monday, followed by Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. The patients in all five countries reportedly had links to Iran, AP reports.

Concerns that Iran is ill-prepared to manage the latest health crisis in the country have been exacerbated by the economic restrictions imposed by the U.S. on Iran which have hampered its effort to combat the spread of the virus.

"The U.S.' sanctions regime has severely impacted the access that Iranians have to life-saving medical supplies and will most likely hamper the Islamic Republic's ability to respond to the coronavirus efficiently," Naveed Mansoori, a co-editor of online Middle East magazine Jadaliyya's Iran Page, told Newsweek on Monday.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of the COVID-19 virus as of February 25.

Coronavirus, COVID-19, Coronavirus map, Statista
This infographic shows the countries that have reported cases of coronavirus as of Tuesday, February 25. Statista
Coronavirus Update as Death Toll Rises in Italy, WHO Could Declare Outbreak a Pandemic | News