By MATT SEDENSKY and LORI HINNANT
BANGKOK (AP) — South Korea struggled to find enough hospital beds for sick patients, Iran and Italy grappled with rising deaths, and Saudi Arabia banned citizens from performing the pilgrimage to Mecca as the coronavirus that tormented China acquired firm footing elsewhere in the world.
As the number of new cases drops precipitously in China, attention has shifted to South Korea, Italy and Iran, countries with major coronavirus clusters that the World Health Organization says account for 80% of new cases outside China.
“People are afraid and uncertain. Fear is a natural human response to any threat,” said WHO’s leader, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “But as we get more data, we are understanding this virus and the disease it causes more and more.”
WHO said about 3.4% of people infected with the virus COVID-19 globally have died, making it more fatal than the common flu. A study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine assessing data from more than 30 Chinese provinces estimated the death rate was 1.4%.
Death rates in outbreaks are likely to skew higher early on as health officials focus on finding severe and fatal cases, missing most milder cases. WHO says the majority of people with the new coronavirus experience only mild symptoms and do not require any treatment.
In Daegu, the South Korean city at the center of that country’s outbreak, a shortage of hospital space meant about 2,300 patients were being cared for in other facilities while they awaited a hospital bed. Attending a meeting on quarantine strategies in Daegu, Prime Minister Chung Se-Kyun assured his country, saying “We can absolutely overcome this situation. … We will win the war against COVID-19.”
South Korea reported 435 new infections Wednesday, far smaller than its high of 851 a day earlier. A total of 5,621 people in South Korea have contracted the virus and 32 have died.
Iran reported 92 deaths among its 2,922 confirmed cases, the most of any country except China. Among the ill are members of the government, and the country cancelled Friday prayers for the second week in a row.
The deaths in Italy rose to 79. The outbreak in Italy has been concentrated in the northern region of Lombardy, but fear over the virus’ spread led even the Vatican to insist Pope Francis was not infected.
The pontiff became ill last week, but the Vatican said Francis only had a cold.
The expanding problem in Europe and beyond has led some governments to try to control supplies of necessities. The governments of the Czech Republic, Russia and Germany announced bans Wednesday covering various protective gear like masks.
India, meantime, tightened the export of 26 key drug ingredients used in pharmaceutical manufacturing, a potentially disruptive move taken as its caseload rose to 28 Wednesday from an earlier tally of just 5.
China reported 119 new cases Wednesday, all but five in the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan. In a sign of the shifting threat, Beijing’s health commissioner said two new cases in the Chinese capital were apparently infected abroad, in Iran and Italy.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency said Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, was expected to gradually shut down its hastily built temporary hospitals, where thousands of beds were empty.
“We believe this decline is real,” WHO outbreak expert Maria Van Kerkhove said of China. The country has reported 80,270 infections and 2,981 fatalities. It has about 85% of the world’s cases and 95% of deaths from the COVID-19 illness.
Doctors working in Wuhan told reporters by video conference Wednesday that hospitals there have an increasing number of empty beds but cautioned there is always the possibility of a new spike of infections.
“The war is not over,” said Dr. Cao Bin, who specializes in respiratory research. “The disease is not only a Wuhan disease, and not only a China disease, but also a global disease.”
The outbreak was blamed for market instability around the globe. Asian stock markets were mixed Wednesday after Wall Street continued to zigzag, despite an interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve. Businesses of all types were experiencing pain as travel and tourism were spurned and worried consumers changed their habits.
“People are afraid to touch anything or take anything from us,” said Maedeh Jahangiri, a perfume seller at an upscale mall in the Iranian capital of Tehran. “Everyone is at a loss.”
Saudi Arabia imposed the ban on residents making the Mecca pilgrimage a week after it closed the holiest sites in Islam to foreigners because of the coronavirus.the United
In Spain, dozens of health workers were quarantined or being monitored after at least five were infected with the new virus. In France, the Louvre finally opened Wednesday after days of information meetings to reassure workers worried about catching the virus from visitors.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned cases could spread, unveiling a 25-page plan for a worst-case scenario in which retired doctors and nurses would be called back to work and police could stop investigating minor crimes to help deal with an outbreak.
“We’re committed to doing everything possible … to prepare for all eventualities,” Johnson said.
In the U.S., more than 120 cases have been reported. Nine people have died, all in and around Seattle, Washington. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were expected to finalize an agreement Wednesday on a $7.5 billion emergency bill to fund work on a virus vaccine and other measures.
Hinnant reported from Paris. Contributors include Kim Tong-Hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Yanan Wang and Ken Moritsugu in Beijing; Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi; John Leicester in Paris; and Maria Cheng in London.
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