The window of opportunity to contain the wider spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) is closing, the chief of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned after cases were reported in Iran and Lebanon.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, said he still believed the virus could be contained – but added: “The window of opportunity is narrowing, so we need to act quickly before it closes completely.”
The virus has gained new footholds in countries including Italy and Iran, while the UK looks set to welcome 35 British nationals who had been stuck aboard a cruise ship in Japan where hundreds were infected.
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Reiterating previous assertions about the ongoing risk of the virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,200, he added: “This outbreak could go in any direction.
“If we do well we can avert any serious crisis, but if we squander the opportunity then we will have a serious problem on our hands.”
Mr Ghebreyesus went on to note it was “very concerning” that Iran had reported 18 cases and four deaths in just the past two days after the UN’s global health body supplied testing kits to Tehran.
The disease is believed to have originated in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province where the majority of the 76,000 cases of the virus have been reported.
Despite initial cases being reported in December 2019, the WHO held off on declaring the virus a public health emergency of international concern until 30 January, saying at the time: “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems.”
Lebanon confirmed its first case of the disease on Friday, with officials in the country observing two other potential instances after a 45-year-old woman arriving from the holy city of Qom in Iran on Thursday tested positive.
“We see different patterns of transmission in different places,” Dr Sylvie Briand, director of WHO global infectious hazard preparedness, said.
“We have lots of diversity, different outbreaks showing different phases.”
Cruise ships have been among the causes of concern for oubreaks, with some 35 British nationals expected to be returned to the UK on an evacuation flight after leaving the Diamond Princess ship in Japan.
Two passengers in their eighties died aboard the vessel after contracting the virus, while Israel confirmed its first case after the return of one person who had been on the ship during the outbreak that saw 620 test positive.
In South Korea a mysterious “cult” has emerged at the centre of a “grave” and “unprecedented” outbreak that has seen the number of cases in the country rise to 204.
Following a “super-spreading event” in Daegu, the nation’s fourth largest city, health officials have traced the sudden spike in cases back to a church whose leader claims he is the returned Jesus Christ and a woman known simply as “Patient 31”.
In Italy, the first instances of the virus being contracted through a secondary source within the country’s borders has led to a rise in the infected number to 17 – following an outbreak in the north which has seen the number of cases almost quadruple.
In response to the emerging cluster, the mayor of Codogno in the Lombardi region ordered schools, public buildings, restaurants and coffee shops closed. Images from the town of 15,000 show streets abandoned after 11 patients were taken to the commune’s hospital.
“In other parts of the world, and also in China, it has been demonstrated that this system of self-isolation helps in a substantial way to block the spread,” Lombardy regional president Attilio Fontana said. “But we must not let ourselves be overcome by panic.”
In Ukraine, panic spread by a fake government email prompted the nation’s health minister to join evacuees from China for two weeks’ quarantine in a show of solidarity.
A false mass email claiming to be from the nation’s health ministry claimed there were five cases of the virus in the country on the same day evacuees from China had been due to return.
The fake news prompted violent clashes between police and protesters, who set fire to barricades and threw bricks through the windows of the evacuees’ busses.