S Korea plans mass testing, US pledges US$2.5 bln to fight virus

February 25, 2020 16:14
A passenger wearing a protective mask sits at a railway station in Seoul on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

South Korea aims to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the center of a surge in coronavirus cases as countries stepped up efforts to contain the outbreak that is now spreading in Europe and the Middle East.

The United States pledged US$2.5 billion to fight the disease, with more than US$1 billion going toward developing a vaccine, with other funds earmarked for therapeutics and the stockpiling of personal protective equipment such as masks.

More than 80,000 people have been infected in China since the outbreak began, apparently in an illegal wildlife market in the central city of Wuhan late last year.

China’s death toll was 2,663 as of the end of Monday, up by 71 from the previous day. But the World Health Organization (WHO) has said the epidemic in China peaked between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and has been declining since.

The world’s second-biggest economy is set for a slowdown with the affects of the outbreak rippling far beyond its borders.

“If travel restrictions and supply chain disruptions spread, the impact on global growth could be more widespread and longer lasting,” said Jonas Goltermann, senior economist at research consultancy Capital Economics in London.

Italy has become a new front line in the fight against the coronavirus with 220 cases reported on Monday, rising from just three on Friday. The death toll in Italy is seven.

Fast-spreading outbreaks in Iran and South Korea, and first cases in several countries in the Middle East, have fed worries of a pandemic.

South Korea has the most virus cases in Asia outside China and reported its ninth death and 60 new cases, for a total of 893.

Public anxiety

About 60 percent of South Korea’s cases are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where the outbreak is believed to have begun with a 61-year-old woman. It is not known how she became infected.

The leader of the church said it would provide authorities with the names of all its members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215,000 people.

The government would conduct coronavirus tests on all of them “as soon as possible”, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

“It is essential to test all of the church members in order to contain the spread of the virus and relieve public anxiety,” the office said.

The US and South Korean militaries have said they may cut back joint training due to the virus, in one of the first concrete signs of its fallout on global US military activities.

The disclosure came during a visit to the Pentagon on Monday by South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, who said 13 South Korean troops had tested positive for the virus.

The US military said a woman in South Korea who tested positive for the virus had recently visited a US military base in the hard-hit southeastern city of Daegu. It was the first infection connected to US Forces in Korea, which has about 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.

The US military urged its troops there to “use extreme caution when travelling off-installation”, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans should avoid non-essential travel to South Korea.

Easing restrictions

Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about three dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Afghanistan and Iraq reported their first new coronavirus cases, all in people who had been to Iran where the toll was 14 dead and 61 infected. Most of the Iran infections were in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

Dubai airport said flights to Iran, apart from Tehran, had been suspended.

In Japan, which has reported four deaths and 850 cases mostly on a cruise ship docked near Tokyo, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said it was too early to talk about canceling the Tokyo Summer Olympics due to start on July 24.

Australia’s top Olympic doctor warned the next two weeks would be the “real test” for the Tokyo Games, as teams draw up contingency plans for pre-Games training in “safe” areas, media reported.

The Japanese government urged people to telecommute or work staggered hours.

China reported a rise in new cases in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak. But excluding those, China had just nine new infections on Monday, the lowest number since Jan. 20.

With the pace of new infections slowing, Beijing signaled it would begin to ease restrictions on travel and movement that have paralyzed economic output.

Flights in China excluding Hubei province would resume gradually as factories and businesses reopened, its aviation regulator said. Reuters

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CG

(Updated; last posted at 7:46 a.m.)