Residents wearing respiratory masks wait to be given access to a supermarket in groups of forty people in the small Italian town of Casalpusterlengo, Italy, February 23 2020. Picture: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP
Residents wearing respiratory masks wait to be given access to a supermarket in groups of forty people in the small Italian town of Casalpusterlengo, Italy, February 23 2020. Picture: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Codogno/Shanghai — Italy and Iran took drastic containment steps and South Korea went on high alert on Sunday after a sharp jump in coronavirus cases there.

The outbreak, that  has killed nearly 2,500 people in China, continued a relentless global expansion at the weekend.

Italy and Iran began introducing the sort of containment measures previously seen only in China, which has put tens of millions of people under lockdown in the epicentre province of Hubei.

More than 50,000 people in about a dozen northern Italian towns near the business hub of Milan were told to stay home, while shops and schools were shuttered. 

A man stands outside the San Siro stadium after the Inter Milan v Sampdoria Serie A match was cancelled due to an outbreak of the coronavirus in Lombardy and Veneto, in Milan, Italy, February 23 2020. Picture: REUTERS/DANIELE MASCOLO
A man stands outside the San Siro stadium after the Inter Milan v Sampdoria Serie A match was cancelled due to an outbreak of the coronavirus in Lombardy and Veneto, in Milan, Italy, February 23 2020. Picture: REUTERS/DANIELE MASCOLO

The number of cases in the country rose to more than 100, the president of the northern Lombardy region said on Sunday.

Italy became the first European country to report one of its nationals had died from the virus on Friday, followed by a second death on Saturday. Both were elderly people.

The government was weighing “extraordinary measures” to halt further infections, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said.

South Korea is raising the nation's alert to its “highest” level, President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday after the number of infections nearly tripled over the weekend to 602.

Led by an outbreak cluster in a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu, South Korea now has the most infections outside China — apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan.

“The next few days will be crucial,” Moon said after a government meeting on the virus. "The government will raise the alert level to the highest level according to experts' recommendations.”

Moon did not specify what those measures may include.

South Korea reported 169 new cases and three deaths on Sunday, taking the countrywide fatality toll to five.

More than 300 cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus sect in Daegu with about 9,300 members either quarantined or asked to stay at home, according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 1,240 have reported symptoms.

The new cases also included a Samsung Electronics employee at a plant in Gumi city, leading the tech giant to suspend operations there until Monday.

'Extraordinary measures'

China reported another 97 deaths in its daily update on Sunday, taking its total to 2,442, plus 648 new infections. Nearly 80,000 people have been infected worldwide, the vast majority in China.

President Xi Jinping described the spread as the country's “largest public health emergency” since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

The outbreak in China remains concentrated in the city of Wuhan — locked down exactly one month ago — where the virus is believed to have emanated from a live animal market in December.

China's infection rate has slowed, but flip-flopping over counting methods has sowed confusion over its data. There also was growing concern over the difficulty of detecting the virus.

Japan confirmed on Sunday a woman who tested negative and disembarked from the Diamond Princess later tested positive. Similar instances have been reported elsewhere.

A third passenger died after contracting the coronavirus, its health ministry said Sunday.

Japan has been criticised over its handling of cases aboard the cruise ship.

Many passengers were allowed to disembark without being properly tested or despite having close contact with infected people.

More than 1,000 crew remain on board and are expected to serve a 14-day quarantine.

Iran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centres across 14 provinces from Sunday after eight deaths in the Islamic Republic — the most outside East Asia.

Iran's outbreak surfaced Wednesday and quickly grew to 43 confirmed infections.

“The concern is ... that we have seen ... a very rapid increase (in Iran) in a matter of a few days,” said Sylvie Briand, director of the WHO's global infectious hazard preparedness department.

Iraq on Thursday clamped down on travel to and from Iran, and flag carrier Kuwait Airways has suspended flights to the country.

Israel's education ministry announced on Sunday 200 Israeli pupils would be quarantined after encountering South Korean tourists who contracted the coronavirus.

Fears for Africa grow

Though Egypt is the only African country with a confirmed case, the WHO warned the continent was vulnerable, urging more AU co-operation.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said necessary treatment tools such as respiratory support machines were “in short supply in many African countries and that's a cause for concern”.

The US state department said anxiety was being stoked by a co-ordinated effort by thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts spreading conspiracy theories that the outbreak was a US-orchestrated ploy to damage China, officials said.

Russia's foreign ministry dismissed the allegation as “deliberately false”.

AFP