BEIJING: Security officers and residents wearing a protective facemask to protect against the COVID-19 coronavirus stand at the entrance of a residential compound where temperature and special cards access are needed to enter or exit yesterday. - AFP

BEIJING: Italy, South Korea and Iran reported sharp rises in coronavirus infections yesterday, triggering concern from the World Health Organization (WHO), but China relaxed some curbs on movement, including in Beijing, as the rate of new infections there eased. The virus has put Chinese cities into lockdown, disrupted air traffic to the workshop of the world and blocked global supply chains for everything from cars and car parts to smartphones.

The surge of cases outside mainland China triggered steep falls in global share markets and Wall Street stock futures as investors fled to safe havens. Gold soared to a seven-year high, oil tumbled nearly 4% and the Korean won fell to its lowest level since August. But US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the impact on the global economy or supply chains, saying it was simply too soon to know.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it no longer had a process for declaring a pandemic, but that the coronavirus outbreak remained an international emergency. "We are specially concerned about the rapid increase in cases in … Iran, Italy and the Republic of Korea," WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Sweden via video link from Geneva.

South Korea reported 231 new cases, taking its total to 833. Many are in its fourth-largest city, Daegu, which became more isolated with Asiana Airlines and Korean Air suspending flights there until next month. Iran, which announced its first two cases last Wednesday, said it had confirmed 43 cases and eight deaths. Most of the infections were in the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Bahrain and Iraq reported their first cases and Kuwait reported three cases involving people who had been in Iran. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed restrictions on travel and immigration from Iran. Afghanistan also reported its first case, officials said. The WHO has been saying for weeks that it dreads the disease reaching countries with weak health systems. Europe's biggest outbreak is in Italy, with some 150 infections - compared with just three before Friday - and a fifth death.

'Severe and complex'
Scientists around the world are scrambling to analyze the virus, but a vaccine is probably more than a year away. "Worryingly, it seems that the virus can pass from person to person without symptoms, making it extremely difficult to track, regardless of what health authorities do," said Simon Clarke, an expert in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading in Britain.

China postponed the annual meeting of its parliament in Beijing. But there was a measure of relief for the world's second-largest economy as more than 20 province-level jurisdictions, including Beijing and Shanghai, reported zero new infections, the best showing since the outbreak began. President Xi Jinping urged businesses to get back to work, though he said the epidemic was still "severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage".

Excluding the central Hubei province, centre of the outbreak, mainland China reported 11 new cases, the lowest since the national health authority started publishing nationwide daily figures on Jan 20. The coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, most in Hubei. Overall, China reported 409 new cases on the mainland, down from 648 a day earlier, taking the total number of infections to 77,150 cases as of Feb. 23. The death toll rose by 150 to 2,592.

Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about two dozen, according to a Reuters tally. Xi said on Sunday the outbreak would have a relatively big, but short-term, impact on the economy and the government would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow. Mnuchin, speaking to Reuters in the Saudi city of Riyadh, said he did not expect the coronavirus to have a material impact on the Phase 1 US-China trade deal. "Obviously that could change as the situation develops," he added.

In northern Italy, authorities sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings across a wide area, halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases. Austria briefly suspended train services over the Alps from Italy after two travelers coming from Italy showed symptoms of fever. Both tested negative for the new coronavirus but Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said a task force would meet to discuss whether to introduce border controls.

Japan had 773 cases as of late Sunday, mostly on a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday. In South Korea, authorities reported a seventh death and dozens more cases yesterday. Of the new cases, 115 were linked to a church in the city of Daegu. Drone footage showed what appeared to be hundreds of people queuing in a neat line outside a Daegu supermarket under the winter sunshine to buy face masks. - Reuters