Virus pushes beyond Asia, taking aim at Europe, Mideast

  • A man wearing a sanitary mask walks past the Duomo gothic cathedral in Milan, Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. Italy has been scrambling to check the spread of Europe's first major outbreak of the new viral disease amid rapidly rising numbers of infections and calling off the popular Venice Carnival, scrapping major league soccer matches in the stricken area and shuttering theaters, including Milan's legendary La Scala.

    A man wearing a sanitary mask walks past the Duomo gothic cathedral in Milan, Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. Italy has been scrambling to check the spread of Europe's first major outbreak of the new viral disease amid rapidly rising numbers of infections and calling off the popular Venice Carnival, scrapping major league soccer matches in the stricken area and shuttering theaters, including Milan's legendary La Scala. Associated Press

  • Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Bupyeong, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday a day after the the president called for "unprecedented, powerful" steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread. (Lee Jong-chul/Newsis via AP)

    Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Bupyeong, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday a day after the the president called for "unprecedented, powerful" steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread. (Lee Jong-chul/Newsis via AP) Associated Press

  • In this photo taken Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, a chef looks out from behind a display of food products at a restaurant in Beijing, China. Regulators on Monday promised tax cuts and other aid to help companies recover from China's virus outbreak and expressed confidence the ruling Communist Party's growth targets can be achieved despite anti-disease controls that shut down much of the economy.

    In this photo taken Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, a chef looks out from behind a display of food products at a restaurant in Beijing, China. Regulators on Monday promised tax cuts and other aid to help companies recover from China's virus outbreak and expressed confidence the ruling Communist Party's growth targets can be achieved despite anti-disease controls that shut down much of the economy. Associated Press

  • In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, photo, sumo wrestlers wearing masks arrive at Shin Osaka railway station in Osaka, western Japan. A viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 79,000 people globally. The World Health Organization has named the illness COVID-19, referring to its origin late last year and the coronavirus that causes it.  (Kyodo News via AP)

    In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, photo, sumo wrestlers wearing masks arrive at Shin Osaka railway station in Osaka, western Japan. A viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 79,000 people globally. The World Health Organization has named the illness COVID-19, referring to its origin late last year and the coronavirus that causes it. (Kyodo News via AP) Associated Press

  • A worker in protective gear stacks plastic buckets containing medical waste from coronavirus patients at a medical center in Daegu, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday a day after the the president called for "unprecedented, powerful" steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread. (Lee Moo-ryul/Newsis via AP)

    A worker in protective gear stacks plastic buckets containing medical waste from coronavirus patients at a medical center in Daegu, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday a day after the the president called for "unprecedented, powerful" steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread. (Lee Moo-ryul/Newsis via AP) Associated Press

  • Italian soldiers wearing sanitary masks patrol Duomo square in downtown Milan, Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. At least 190 people in Italy's north have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and four people have died, including an 84-year-old man who died overnight in Bergamo, the Lombardy regional government reported. (Claudio Furlan/Lapresse via AP)

    Italian soldiers wearing sanitary masks patrol Duomo square in downtown Milan, Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. At least 190 people in Italy's north have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and four people have died, including an 84-year-old man who died overnight in Bergamo, the Lombardy regional government reported. (Claudio Furlan/Lapresse via AP) Associated Press

  • A woman wearing a sanitary mask talks on the phone as she walks in the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery shopping arcade, in downtown Milan, Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. At least 190 people in Italy's north have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and four people have died, including an 84-year-old man who died overnight in Bergamo, the Lombardy regional government reported. (Claudio Furlan/Lapresse via AP)

    A woman wearing a sanitary mask talks on the phone as she walks in the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery shopping arcade, in downtown Milan, Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. At least 190 people in Italy's north have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and four people have died, including an 84-year-old man who died overnight in Bergamo, the Lombardy regional government reported. (Claudio Furlan/Lapresse via AP) Associated Press

  • Tourists wearing sanitary masks move a few steps of dance, in downtown Milan, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. In Lombardy, the hardest-hit region with 90 cases Coronavirus infections, schools and universities were ordered to stay closed in the coming days, and sporting events were canceled.

    Tourists wearing sanitary masks move a few steps of dance, in downtown Milan, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. In Lombardy, the hardest-hit region with 90 cases Coronavirus infections, schools and universities were ordered to stay closed in the coming days, and sporting events were canceled. Associated Press

  • An aerial view of empty main roads is seen in Daegu, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday a day after the the president called for "unprecedented, powerful" steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP)

    An aerial view of empty main roads is seen in Daegu, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday a day after the the president called for "unprecedented, powerful" steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP) Associated Press

  • Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday a day after the the president called for "unprecedented, powerful" steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread.

    Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday a day after the the president called for "unprecedented, powerful" steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread. Associated Press

  • A worker wearing protective gears sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government had increased its anti-virus alert level by one notch to 'úRed,'Ě the highest level. It allows for the temporary closure of schools and reduced operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea.

    A worker wearing protective gears sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government had increased its anti-virus alert level by one notch to 'úRed,'Ě the highest level. It allows for the temporary closure of schools and reduced operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea. Associated Press

  • In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, photo, paramilitary policemen wearing protective face masks walk by the empty Tiananmen Square against the back drop of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. China announced Monday it has postponed its most important political meeting of the year because of the outbreak of the new virus.

    In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, photo, paramilitary policemen wearing protective face masks walk by the empty Tiananmen Square against the back drop of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. China announced Monday it has postponed its most important political meeting of the year because of the outbreak of the new virus. Associated Press

  • Workers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in on Sunday put the country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and says officials should take "unprecedented, powerful" steps to fight a viral outbreak.

    Workers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in on Sunday put the country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and says officials should take "unprecedented, powerful" steps to fight a viral outbreak. Associated Press

  • In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, photo, a volunteer sits on a chair keep guard as residents stand near the barricades blocked a residential area in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Sunday. Warning that China's virus epidemic is "still grim and complex," President Xi Jinping called Sunday for more efforts to stop the outbreak, revive industry and prevent the disease from disrupting spring planting of crops. (Chinatopix via AP)

    In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, photo, a volunteer sits on a chair keep guard as residents stand near the barricades blocked a residential area in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Sunday. Warning that China's virus epidemic is "still grim and complex," President Xi Jinping called Sunday for more efforts to stop the outbreak, revive industry and prevent the disease from disrupting spring planting of crops. (Chinatopix via AP) Associated Press

  • A workers wearing protective gears sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government had increased its anti-virus alert level by one notch to 'úRed,'Ě the highest level. It allows for the temporary closure of schools and reduced operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea.

    A workers wearing protective gears sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government had increased its anti-virus alert level by one notch to 'úRed,'Ě the highest level. It allows for the temporary closure of schools and reduced operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea. Associated Press

  • Workers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government had increased its anti-virus alert level by one notch to 'úRed,'Ě the highest level. It allows for the temporary closure of schools and reduced operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea.

    Workers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a market in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government had increased its anti-virus alert level by one notch to 'úRed,'Ě the highest level. It allows for the temporary closure of schools and reduced operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea. Associated Press

  • Italian soldiers wearing sanitary masks patrol Duomo square, in downtown Milan, Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. At least 190 people in Italy's north have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and four people have died, including an 84-year-old man who died overnight in Bergamo, the Lombardy regional government reported. (Claudio Furlan/Lapresse via AP)

    Italian soldiers wearing sanitary masks patrol Duomo square, in downtown Milan, Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. At least 190 people in Italy's north have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and four people have died, including an 84-year-old man who died overnight in Bergamo, the Lombardy regional government reported. (Claudio Furlan/Lapresse via AP) Associated Press

 
 
Updated 2/24/2020 4:50 PM

SEOUL, South Korea -- The new virus took aim at a broadening swath of the globe Monday, with officials in Europe and the Middle East scrambling to limit the spread of an outbreak that showed signs of stabilizing at its Chinese epicenter but posed new threats far beyond.

In Italy, authorities set up roadblocks, called off soccer matches and shuttered sites including the famed La Scala opera house. In Iran, the government said 12 people had died nationwide, while five neighboring countries - Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Afghanistan - reported their first cases of the virus, with all those infected having links to Iran.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Across the world, stock markets and futures tumbled on fears of a global economic slowdown due to the expanding spread of the virus. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank more than 1,000 points, its biggest decline in two years.

The number of people sickened by the coronavirus topped 79,000 globally, and wherever it sprung up, officials rushed to try to contain it.

'úThe past few weeks has demonstrated just how quickly a new virus can spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption,'Ě said the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

'úDoes this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, yes,'Ě Tedros said, but 'úfor the moment we're not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus.'Ě

"I have spoken consistently about the need for facts not fear. Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts but it may certainly cause fear," Tedros said, speaking in Geneva.

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He said a WHO expert team currently in China believes the virus plateaued there between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and has declined since. The team also said the fatality rate in China was between 2% and 4% in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, and 0.7% outside of Wuhan.

Clusters of the virus continued to emerge outside China, including in Qom, an Iranian city where the country's semiofficial ILNA news agency cited a lawmaker as reporting a staggering 50 people had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The country's Health Ministry rejected that, insisting the death toll remained at 12, with total infections numbering 61.

The conflicting reports raised questions about the Iranian government's transparency concerning the scale of the outbreak. But even with the lower toll of 12, the number of deaths compared to the number of confirmed infections from the virus is higher in Iran than in any other country, including China and South Korea, where the outbreak is far more widespread.

Asked about the spike in cases in Iran, WHO's emergencies program director, Michael Ryan, cautioned that in the first wave of infections reported from a country, only the deaths may be being picked up and therefore be over-represented. 'úThe virus may have been there for longer than we had previously suspected," he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Ryan said a WHO team would be arriving in Iran on Tuesday and in Italy on Monday.

"What we don't understand yet in COVID-19 are the absolute transmission dynamics," Ryan said, noting that in China there's been a significant drop in cases. 'úThat goes against the logic of pandemic.'Ě

Authorities in Iran closed schools across much of the country for a second day Monday. Movie theaters and other venues were shuttered through at least Friday, and daily sanitizing of public buses and the Tehran metro, which is used by some 3 million people, was begun.

Recognition grew that the virus was no longer stemming only from contact with infected people in China.

'úMany different countries around the world may be sources of COVID-19 infections,'Ě said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. 'úThis makes it much harder for any one country to detect and contain.'Ě

China still has the vast majority of cases, but as it records lower levels of new infections, attention has shifted to new fronts in the outbreak. Chief among them is South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in placed the country under a red alert, the highest level, allowing for 'úunprecedented, powerful steps'Ě to stem the crisis.

Beyond expanding a delay to the start of the school year from the hardest-hit area of Daegu nationwide, though, it remains to be seen how far the government will go. A Chinese-style lockdown of Daegu - a city of 2.5 million people that is the country's fourth largest - appeared unlikely, even as signs of the response to a broadening problem could be seen nearly everywhere in the nation.

More than 600 police officers in Daegu fanned out in search of hundreds of members of a church that has been identified as a source for hundreds of infections. The country's National Assembly was temporarily closed Monday as workers sterilized its halls. At shops and food stalls in the capital of Seoul, a misty fog surrounded crews in protective suits who sprayed disinfectants.

'úThe changes have been dramatic,'Ě said Daegu resident Nah Young-jo, who described an increasingly empty city of few passersby and closed restaurants.

South Korean officials recommended that courts consider postponing trials of cases not deemed urgent, while Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul threatened tough penalties for those who defy a ban on rallies in major downtown areas. Work schedules for city employees in Seoul were staggered to reduce crowding on subways, where packed cars could become petri dishes if an infected passenger were aboard.

'úIf we fail to effectively prevent the spread of the virus into the local communities, there would be a large possibility (that the illness) spreads nationwide,'Ě warned Kim Gang-lip, South Korea's vice health minister.

Health workers said they planned to test every citizen in Daegu who showed cold-like symptoms, estimating around 28,000 people would be targeted.

In Italy, where 229 people have tested positive for the virus and seven have died, police manned checkpoints around a dozen quarantined northern towns as worries grew across the continent.

Austria temporarily halted rail traffic across its border with Italy. Slovenia and Croatia, popular getaways for Italians, were holding crisis meetings. Schools were closed, theater performances were canceled and even Carnival celebrations in Venice were called off.

It was a sign of how quickly circumstances could change in the widening COVID-19 scare. Italy had imposed more stringent measures than other European countries after the outbreak began, barring flights beginning Jan. 31 to and from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Until last week, Italy had reported just three cases of infection.

'úThese rapid developments over the weekend have shown how quickly this situation can change,'Ě the health commissioner for the European Union, Stella Kyriakides, said in Brussels. 'úWe need to take this situation of course very seriously, but we must not give in to panic, and, even more importantly, to disinformation.'Ě

China reported 409 new cases of the illness on Monday, raising the mainland's total to 77,150. It also announced 150 new deaths for a 2,592 total.

Dr. Liang Wannian, the leader of a team of Chinese experts working with WHO to study the outbreak, said more than 3,000 medical workers had been infected, the majority of them in Wuhan. Liang said while the origins of the virus were still being studied, research suggested that bats may have been one of the hosts and that pangolins, a type of anteater, may have been an intermediate host.

Meantime, China announced it would postpone the annual meetings of the National People's Congress, among the most important political gatherings of the year, citing the virus outbreak.

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Sedensky reported from Bangkok. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, Ken Moritsugu and Yanan Wang in Beijing, Danica Kirka in London, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Lauran Neergaard in Washington and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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