New death toll comes after 96 more people died in Hubei province, hard-hit epicentre of outbreak. Meanwhile, a dozen towns in northern Italy are locked down after deaths of two people infected.

A woman is taken into an ambulance amid a coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, in Casalpusterlengo, February 22, 2020.
A woman is taken into an ambulance amid a coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, in Casalpusterlengo, February 22, 2020. (Reuters)

The death toll in China from the coronavirus epidemic rose past 2,400 on Sunday after 96 more people died in Hubei province, the hard-hit epicentre of the outbreak.

The vast majority of the deaths were in the provincial capital of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December, according to the daily update from the Hubei health commission.

The number of cases exceeds 76,000 and the virus has reached more than 25 countries, with deaths in Italy, Iran, and South Korea, forcing public officials to close schools and impose restrictions.

Italy closes towns

A dozen towns in northern Italy effectively went into lockdown on Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the new virus from China and a growing cluster of cases with no direct links to the origin of the outbreak abroad.

The secondary contagions prompted local authorities in the Lombardy and Veneto regions to close schools, businesses, and restaurants and to cancel sporting events and Masses. 

The mayor of Milan, Italy’s business capital and the regional capital of Lombardy, shuttered public offices.

A 78-year-old man infected with the virus died in Veneto. A post-mortem test performed on a 77-year-old woman in Lombardy came back positive, though it wasn’t clear if illness from the virus caused her death.

Hundreds of residents and workers who came into contact with 54 people who tested positive for the virus in Italy were put into isolation pending results of their tests. Civil protection crews set up a tent camp outside a closed hospital in Veneto to screen medical staff for the virus.

In the town of Codogno, where the first patient identified in the northern cluster was in critical condition, closed supermarkets, restaurants and shops made the main street practically a ghost town. The few people out wore face masks, which were coveted items after selling out at pharmacies.

Lombardy government authorities said the region had 39 confirmed cases, all somehow traceable to the first one involving a man who hadn’t travelled to China. Ten towns in Lombardy received orders to suspend nonessential activities and services.

'You can get it from anyone'

The Veneto region reported 12 people with the virus, including the 78-year-old man who died late Friday. Two of the region’s confirmed infections were in relatives of the man who died, Veneto regional president Luca Zaia said.

Zaia said Saturday that the contagion showed that the virus is transmitted like any flu and that trying to pinpoint a single source for the cases or to establish a link to China no longer were effective containment measures.

“You can get it from anyone,” he told reporters. “We can expect to have cases of patients who had no contact” with suspected carriers. While the virus isn’t particularly lethal, it can be for the elderly or people with existing conditions, he said.

The man who died in Veneto, for example, did not meet the main risk factors for the virus when he was diagnosed with pneumonia two weeks ago: he hadn’t traveled to China or come into contact with anyone who did. Therefore, the ill man wasn’t originally tested for the virus.

Iran reports sixth death

Iranian health authorities on Saturday reported the sixth death from the new coronavirus that emerged in China –– where the virus has killed 2,345 people –– and said the fatality was from among 10 new confirmed cases of the virus in Iran.

So far, 28 cases have been confirmed in Iran, including the six who died.

People are being treated for the virus in at least four different cities, including the capital, Tehran, where some pharmacies had already run out of masks and hand sanitizer. 

Other cities are Qom, Arak and Rasht.

The governor of Markazi province told the official IRNA news agency on Saturday that tests of the sixth person who recently died in the central city of Arak were positive for the virus.

Ali Aghazadeh said the person who died was suffering from a heart problem, too.

The virus loomed over a nationwide parliamentary election in Iran on Friday. Many voters went to the polls wearing face masks.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour made Saturday's announcement for the latest figures on state TV but did not specify when the fifth death occurred. Two people had died earlier Friday from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Authorities reported two deaths previously this week.

Jahanpour said that of the 10 newly detected cases, two were in the capital of Tehran and eight were in the city of Qom. That's where the first two elderly patients died on Wednesday. He said the two patients in the capital had visited Qom or had links with the city.

Minoo Mohraz, an Iranian health ministry official, had said on Friday that the virus "possibly came from Chinese workers who work in Qom and travelled to China." She did not elaborate. A Chinese company has been building a solar power plant in Qom.

Iraq reports first coronavirus case

Following the announcement of the deaths, neighbouring Iraq on Thursday clamped down on travel to and from the Islamic republic, with its health ministry announcing people in Iran were barred from entering the country "until further notice".

Kuwait's national carrier Kuwait Airways also announced it would suspend all flights to Iran.

On Saturday, Iraq reported its first coronavirus case in the southern Dhi Qar province, according to a local medical source.

The source said an Iraqi student tested positive for the virus after returning from the Iranian city of Qom.

He said the student has been quarantined for further tests.

China reports fall in cases

Meanwhile, China reported a decrease in the number of new deaths and new cases of the coronavirus on Saturday, while its central bank predicted a limited short-term economic impact and said the country was confident in winning the fight against the epidemic.

Mainland China had 397 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infections on Friday, down from 889 a day earlier, the national health authority said.

But the number of infections continued to rise elsewhere, with outbreaks worsening in South Korea, Italy and Iran and Lebanon. The World Health Organisation warned that the window of opportunity to contain the international spread was closing.

Concerns about the virus weighed on US stocks and the Nasdaq had its worst daily percentage decline in about three weeks on Friday, driven by an earlier spike in new cases and data showing stalling US business activity in February.

South Korea new cases

South Korea reported another spike in infections with 229 confirmed cases on Saturday, taking its tally to 433, about half related to those who attended a church service in Daegu. Cases in one hospital jumped from 16 to 108 overnight.

The virus has spread to some 26 countries and territories outside mainland China, killing 11 people, according to a Reuters tally.

"We still have a chance to contain it," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said on Friday.

"If we don't, if we squander the opportunity, then there will be a serious problem on our hands."

An outbreak in northern Italy worsened, with its first death, an elderly man, among 17 confirmed cases including its first known instance of local transmission.

The total number of confirmed cases in mainland China rose to 76,288, with the death toll at 2,345 as of the end of Friday. The central province of Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, reported 106 new deaths of which 90 were in its capital Wuhan.

Chinese scientists on Friday reported that a woman from Wuhan had travelled 400 miles (675 km) and infected five relatives without ever showing signs of infection, offering new evidence of asymptomatic spreading.

Fully confident on economy

Senior Chinese central bank officials sought to ease global investors' worries about the potential damage to the world's second-largest economy from the outbreak, saying interest rates would be guided lower and that the country's financial system and currency were resilient.

Chen Yulu, a deputy governor of the People's Bank of China, said policymakers had plenty of tools to support the economy, and that they were fully confident of winning the war against the epidemic, according to China Central Television (CCTV).

"We believe that after this epidemic is over, pent-up demand for consumption and investment will be fully released, and China's economy will rebound swiftly," Chen said.

China has recently cut several of its key lending rates, including the benchmark lending rate on Thursday, and has urged banks to extend cheap loans to the worst-hit companies which are struggling to resume production and are running out of cash.

Transportation restrictions remain in place in large parts of the country. While more firms are reopening, the limited data available so far suggests manufacturing is still running at levels far below those in the same period last year, and disruptions are starting to spill over into global supply chains as far away as the United States.

Finance leaders from the Group of 20 major economies were set to discuss risks to the world economy in Saudi Arabia this weekend. The International Monetary Fund said it was too soon to assess what the virus impact would be on global growth.

Dozens evacuated

Another centre of infection has been the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan since February 3, with more than 630 cases accounting for the biggest cluster outside China.

Australia said on Saturday that four more of its nationals evacuated from the ship tested positive for coronavirus, in addition to two individuals previously identified.

A second plane with 82 Hong Kong residents who were on the ship landed in the Asian financial hub, where they will face a further 14 days of quarantine, and some 35 British passengers were due to arrive back home on Saturday, where they would be quarantined.

US authorities said that of 329 Americans evacuated from the ship, 18 tested positive.

Ukraine's health minister joined evacuees from China for two weeks' quarantine in a sanatorium on Friday in a show of solidarity after fears over the possible spread of coronavirus led to clashes.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies