South Korea virus cases surge as WHO sounds maximum alert

SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea reported its biggest surge in new coronavirus cases yesterday as concerns grew of a possible epidemic in the United States (US) and the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its risk alert to its highest level.

The virus has rapidly spread across the world in the past week, causing stock markets to sink to their lowest levels since the 2008 global financial crisis over fears that the disease could wreak havoc on the world economy.

More than 2,900 people have died and over 85,000 have been infected worldwide since it was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

The vast majority of infections have been in China but more daily cases are now logged outside the country, with South Korea, Italy and Iran emerging as major hotspots. South Korea has the most cases outside China, with 3,150 infections as 813 more patients were reported yesterday – the country’s biggest increase to date.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned top party officials of the “serious consequences” of failing to prevent an outbreak on their side of the border.

The impoverished nation, with a weak and ill-equipped healthcare system, has closed its borders to prevent the spread of the disease into its territory.

The virus has also spread to new zones – in the past 24 hours, it has affected nine new countries including Azerbaijan, Mexico and New Zealand, as well as reaching sub-Saharan Africa with Nigeria reporting its first case.

“We have now increased our assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at global level,” WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Friday.

US health officials on Friday reported three more cases of the new coronavirus transmitted to people who did not travel overseas or come in contact with anyone known to be ill, indicating the disease was spreading in the country.

There are now four such cases in the US, all on the Pacific seaboard, in addition to some 60 other infections in the country.

“The virus is here, present at some level, but we still don’t know to what degree,” said Sara Cody, Director of Public Health for California’s Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley where tech giants like Apple and Google are based.

US Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell said the central bank stood at the ready to intervene if needed, given the “evolving” risks to the world’s largest economy posed by the outbreak.

Official data released in China yesterday showed the extent of the damage caused to the world’s second-largest economy, with manufacturing activity falling to its lowest level on record as key industries ground to a standstill under drastic containment measures.

Military vehicles spray disinfectant as part of preventive measures against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, on a road near Dongdaegu railway station in Daegu. PHOTO: AFP