New cases in South Korea exceed those in China as coronavirus sweeps the globe

Jane Cai

The coronavirus epidemic is spreading around the world at a more worrying pace than in China, with South Korea for the first time reporting a larger number of confirmed cases in a single day than the country where the outbreak began.

South Korea reported 505 new cases as of 4pm on Thursday, bringing its total infections to 1,766 – the highest number reported in the country in a single day.

In mainland China, there were 433 new cases recorded across the nation, including 409 in the central province of Hubei, the epicentre of the epidemic.

Some 78,631 people in the Chinese mainland have tested positive for the new virus strain – which causes a disease called Covid-19 – since the outbreak began in December. The national death toll stands at 2,747 after another 29 deaths were reported on Thursday. China’s health commission said 32,804 patients had recovered.

Outside China, at least 20 countries have confirmed their first coronavirus cases in the past week. The deadly pneumonia-like illness has now spread to every continent except for Antarctica, affecting people from an unorthodox and secretive church in South Korea to a holy Shiite city in Iran.

The Islamic Republic has become another hotspot for the virus – Iran has confirmed 141 cases and 22 deaths, with 44 new cases reported on Wednesday. Experts have warned that the outbreak there could be far worse than officially reported, and emergency aid would be needed to help the sanctions-hit country.

In Japan, 912 people have tested positive for the virus and eight have died, including passengers from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday called for all schools to close from Monday until the end of the spring break in April. The only other country to have shut schools nationwide so far is China.

In Italy, the focus of concern in Europe, the number of confirmed cases has surged to more than 400 – jumping 25 per cent in 24 hours.

Latin America also recorded its first case, with a patient testing positive in Brazil on Wednesday – a 61-year-old São Paulo resident who had recently travelled to Lombardy in Italy.

And Hong Kong reported its 92nd case, a 70-year-old woman who visited a Buddhist temple in North Point – the 13th patient linked to the worship hall.

US health officials meanwhile warned that an outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States was now inevitable, and President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that he had put Vice-President Mike Pence in charge of the response.

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Centre for Health Security, said: “To me, with over two dozen countries supporting the spread of this virus, we are in the early stages of a pandemic.”

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Leading Chinese respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan said China had much to share with other countries in fighting the virus, especially measures like early detection and isolation of suspected patients.

“China’s number of new cases is already less than those in other countries. China’s practice may be helpful to them,” Zhong said at a press conference in Guangzhou on Thursday.

Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory disease expert, said China’s experience fighting the virus may help other countries. Photo: China News Service

He said China should see what it could do to help South Korea, adding that he was willing to join regional forums to share the country’s expertise.

“After all, it’s a disease of mankind instead of one country,” he said.

Canadian epidemiologist Bruce Aylward, who has just led a World Health Organisation mission to China, told reporters in Beijing on Monday that the world needed the country’s experience.

“China has the most experience in the world with this disease. It is the only country that turned around a serious and large-scale outbreak,” Aylward said. “The world needs the experience and materials of China to be successful battling this coronavirus disease.”

According to Zhong, China could get the epidemic under control by late April because of the extreme intervention measures taken by the state – including mass quarantines and travel bans that curbed Lunar New Year trips.

But he admitted that the number of coronavirus patients would have been greatly reduced if China had taken action in early December, or even in early January. China only officially announced human-to-human transmission of the virus on January 20, and a delay of just a few more days could have resulted in well over 100,000 infections, Zhong said.

“There have been three coronavirus outbreaks since the beginning of the 21st century. We should take action to prevent it spreading whenever there is a coronavirus infection. This is a big lesson for us,” he said.

The epidemiologist also said that while the outbreak started in China, it may not be the origin of the deadly virus.

“When we were making forecasts, we only thought about China and not other countries. But now outbreaks are taking place in other countries,” he said. “Though the outbreaks started in China, it does not necessarily mean China was the source.”

Additional reporting by Josephine Ma and Gigi Choy

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