GENEVA: The World Health Organisation warned on Friday that the window to stem the deadly coronavirus outbreak was shrinking, amid concern over a surge in cases with no clear link to China.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has for weeks insisted the low number of cases of Covid-19 outside the epicentre of the deadly outbreak in China’s central Hubei province presented a “window of opportunity” to contain the international spread.
But as cases surged across the Middle East and in South Korea on Friday, he cautioned for the first time that while “we are still in a phase where containment is possible... our window of opportunity is narrowing.”
He warned that if countries did not quickly mobilise to fight the spread of the virus, “this outbreak could go in any direction. It could even be messy.” The outbreak which began in December has already killed more than 2,200 people and infected more than 75,500 in China.
More than 1,150 people have also been infected and more than a dozen have died across 27 other countries.
On Friday, cases of the deadly virus were reported in a range of countries in the Middle East, including in Israel and Lebanon for the first time, while Iran said four people there had died and 18 been infected in the outbreak.
Infections also nearly doubled in South Korea to 204, making it the hardest-hit country outside China.
In Europe, meanwhile, a small northern Italian town closed bars, schools and offices for up to five days to try to quell fears over six cases of the virus.
Tedros stressed though that the number of cases outside of China still remained “relatively small”.
But he voiced concern “about the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to or contact with a confirmed case,” urging countries worldwide to be “very, very serious” about preventing the spread of the virus.
“We must not look back and regret that we failed to take advantage of the window of opportunity we have.” China has meanwhile pointed to official figures showing new cases in the country slowing this week as evidence that its drastic containment measures are working, but fresh infections emerged at two Beijing hospitals, and more than 500 others were reported in prisons across the country.
Chinese authorities have placed tens of millions of people under quarantine in hard-hit central Hubei province, restricted movements in other cities far from the epicentre and closed schools nationwide.
At a Politburo meeting chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, the leadership said the epidemic’s peak “has not yet arrived”, and the situation in Hubei and Wuhan remains “grim and complex,” according to state media.
Many nations have banned travellers from China and airlines have suspended flights to and from the country.
WHO does not recommend any international travel or trade restrictions, but Tedros called on countries to take “proportionate” actions to protect against the international spread of the virus. In hard-hit South Korea, more than 120 members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu, have now been infected.
The mayor of Daegu — South Korea’s fourth-biggest city, with a population of over 2.5 million — has advised residents to stay indoors.
Most people on the streets were wearing masks Friday, but many businesses were closed and workers sprayed disinfectant outside the church.
“With so many confirmed cases here I’m worried that Daegu will become the second Wuhan,” said Seo Dong-min, 24, referring to Hubei’s capital, where the virus first emerged.
Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2020