The World Health Organization warned Friday that the window to stem the deadly coronavirus outbreak was shrinking, amid concern over a surge in cases with no clear link to China.
The warning came as Italy moved to close public spaces in ten towns, in a move with echoes of China’s lockdown of entire cities in the province at the center of the outbreak.
Over 50,000 people have been asked to stay at home in the areas concerned in northern Italy while all public activities such as carnival celebrations, church masses and sporting events have been banned for up to a week.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has for weeks insisted the low number of cases of COVID-19 outside the epicenter of the deadly outbreak in China’s central Hubei province presented a “window of opportunity” to contain the international spread.
But as cases surged across the Middle East and in South Korea Friday, he cautioned for the first time that while “we are still in a phase where containment is possible… our window of opportunity is narrowing.”
He warned that if countries did not quickly mobilize to fight the spread of the virus, “this outbreak could go in any direction. It could even be messy.”
The outbreak which began in December has already killed more than 2,200 people and infected more than 75,500 in China.
More than 1,150 people have also been infected and more than a dozen have died across 27 other countries.
On Friday, cases of the deadly virus were reported in a range of countries in the Middle East, including in Israel and Lebanon for the first time, while Iran said four people there had died and 18 been infected in the outbreak.
Infections also nearly doubled in South Korea to 204, making it the hardest-hit country outside China.
The US advised citizens to avoid traveling by cruise liner in Asia because it said the vessels acted as amplifiers of the virus.
The world modern pentathlon championships were also been moved from the Chinese city of Xiamen to Cancun in Mexico as a consequence of the deadly outbreak
Tedros stressed though that the number of cases outside of China still remained “relatively small”.
Chinese authorities have placed tens of millions of people under quarantine in hard-hit central Hubei province, restricted movements in other cities far from the epicenter and closed schools nationwide.
At a Politburo meeting chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday, the leadership said the epidemic’s peak “has not yet arrived”, and the situation in Hubei and Wuhan remains “grim and complex,” according to state media.
Many nations have banned travelers from China and airlines have suspended flights to and from the country.
In hard-hit South Korea, more than 120 members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu, have now been infected.
The mayor of Daegu — South Korea’s fourth-biggest city, with a population of over 2.5 million — has advised residents to stay indoors.
Most people on the streets were wearing masks Friday, but many businesses were closed and workers sprayed disinfectant outside the church.
“With so many confirmed cases here I’m worried that Daegu will become the second Wuhan,” said Seo Dong-min, 24, referring to Hubei’s capital, where the virus first emerged.
Two Australians and an Israeli evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship meanwhile tested positive for coronavirus on returning to their home countries, despite being cleared in Japan.
The cases will fuel questions about Tokyo’s policy of allowing former Diamond Princess passengers to return home after testing negative.
Two former passengers, both Japanese and in their 80s, died in Japan on Thursday.