Saudia Arabia on Thursday banned pilgrims from visiting Islam’s holiest sites to try to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus as the number of deaths soared in neighbouring Iran and new cases were reported in Europe.
China is no longer the only breeding ground for COVID-19 as countries worry about possible contagion from other hotbeds of infection, including Iran, South Korea and Italy.
There are now more daily cases being recorded outside China than inside the country, where the virus first emerged in December, according to the World Health Organization.
More than 2,700 people have died in China and some 78,000 have been infected. The outbreak has spread to dozens of other countries, where there have been more than 50 deaths and 3,600 cases, raising fears of a pandemic.
Jitters over the epidemic have rocked global markets, while sports matches and festivals across Europe have been cancelled.
The US and South Korea on Thursday postponed forthcoming joint military exercises because of the outbreak, while Japan’s prime minister called for schools to close nationwide for several weeks.
President Emmanuel Macron said France, the world’s most visited country, was preparing for a jump in coronavirus cases.
“We are facing a crisis, an epidemic that is coming,” he said during a visit to a hospital in Paris where the first French person carrying the virus died Tuesday.
But President Donald Trump has played down fears of a major outbreak in the United States, the world’s largest economy.
“I think that there’s a chance that it could get worse, a chance it could get fairly substantially worse, but nothing’s inevitable,” Trump told reporters Wednesday.
His comments contradicted US health officials who urged Americans to be ready to cancel mass gatherings and work from home. There are 60 cases in the US so far.
The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said it had detected the first case of unknown origin in the country, signalling that the virus may be spreading within communities.
With the virus spreading in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia suspended visas for visits to Islam’s holiest sites for the “umrah” pilgrimage, an unprecedented move, raising questions over the hajj which starts in July.
The kingdom – which hosts millions of pilgrims every year – said it was also suspending visas for tourists visiting from countries where the new virus is a “danger”.
In neighbouring Iran, the health ministry reported seven new deaths over the past 24 hours, taking the overall toll to 26, the highest outside China.
Tehran imposed domestic travel restrictions for confirmed or suspected cases and slapped curbs on visits to major Muslim pilgrimage sites, while Iran’s neighbours have shut their borders.
Several governments have also advised against travel to Italy – which has 400 cases and 12 deaths, and South Korea, which has almost 1,600 cases, the highest number outside China.
Even China – which sealed off an entire province and shut down cities across the country to contain the virus – is now worried about importing cases and ordered people arriving in Beijing from affected countries to go into 14-day self-quarantine.
But UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet voiced concern Thursday about the widespread use of quarantine, and said the epidemic had “set off a disturbing wave of prejudice against people of Chinese and East Asian ethnicity”.
The virus is believed to have originated in a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where it is suspected of having hopped from animal to human.
China reported 29 more deaths Thursday – its lowest daily tally since January – and 433 new cases, most of them in hard-hit Hubei province and well below massive increases from just a week ago.
Zhong Nanshan, a respected scientist who advises the government, said China would have had far fewer cases if action had been taken as early as December – a rare critique from a prominent insider.
Hubei officials have been accused of initially covering up the outbreak and silencing a whistleblowing doctor who later died from the disease.
Nevertheless, Zhong said he expected China to bring the epidemic under control by late April.
But other countries have now become sources of concern.
In Latin America’s first case, the 61-year-old patient had travelled to Italy’s Lombardy region, the epicentre of the outbreak there.
In Romania, a man was infected after coming in contact with a visiting Italian. Countries from Denmark to Spain and Algeria have also reported infections linked to Italy.
The first cases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Estonia involved people who had been in Iran.
The WHO has urged countries to prepare for a potential pandemic, though it stopped short of declaring one.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, said his government was “effectively operating now on the basis that there is one – a pandemic”.
But EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides appealed for calm.
“This is a situation of concern, but we must not give in to panic.”