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Coronavirus outbreak not a pandemic, but has potential to be, WHO says

Deaths from COVID-19 in China continue to rise -- as of Monday there were 77,362 cases and 2,618 deaths -- and there have been more than 2,000 cases confirmed across 28 other countries.

By Darryl Coote & Brian Dunleavy
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A security guard checks the temperature of people visiting a popular shopping mall due to the threat of the the deadly coronavirus. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/cb7a350c30b05c4f96dcdfd87214282e/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
A security guard checks the temperature of people visiting a popular shopping mall due to the threat of the the deadly coronavirus. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Deaths from the coronavirus passed 2,600 in China, and the number of cases surpassed 77,000, on Monday as countries worldwide rushed to contain the spread of the disease within their own borders.

World Health Organization officials on Monday said they are not yet prepared to declare the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, despite the continued rapid growth of the outbreak and new cases in Iran, Italy and South Korea.

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Outside of China, there have been 2,074 confirmed cases in 28 countries, including 23 deaths -- counting the three new outbreaks.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the new outbreaks "deeply concerning," but said that "for the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus."

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The decision is based on the agency's ongoing assessment of the diseases spread threat, and could change as facts on the ground change, officials said. With COVID-19 causing epidemics in different parts of the world, Ghebreyesus said individual countries require calm, tailored responses and declaring a pandemic too early could increase fear and hold back efforts to slow spread of the virus.

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The WHO does not use a numerical threshold for determining a pandemic, rather eschewing to judgment based on the definition that "an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people."

Mike Ryan, head of the WHO's emergency response program, said the fact that Chinese officials appear to have largely limited the outbreak to one region of the country and that numbers appear to be slowing or declining suggests COVID-19 is containable.

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At the same time, he said, the continued spread to other countries, as well as lack of clarity on whether the coronavirus will remain endemic in humans or morph into a "seasonal" disease has officials exercising caution about any declaration.

COVID-19 in China

Chinese health officials have reported 150 new deaths from the deadly coronavirus over the previous 24 hours, increasing the death toll for mainland China to 2,618 since the epidemic began in December.

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China's National Health Commission announced the new death toll in its daily update Monday morning, stating 149 of the newly reported deaths occurred in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak.

The health officials also said there were 460 new confirmed cases over Sunday, increasing the total of confirmed cases to 77,362.

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The announcement of the new figures came as officials in Hubei's capital of Wuhan reversed an earlier decision to relax some of the tight restrictions placed last month upon the city of 11 million at the center of the outbreak. Hubei is where 2,495 people have died from the disease with 1,987 in Wuhan, the province said in a statement on Monday.

In a statement Monday afternoon, Wuhan government officials said the easing of lockdown restrictions was declared "invalid" as it was issued without consent from "the main leaders."

"We have seriously criticized the relevant personnel," the statement read.

The city was placed under a strict lockdown on Jan. 23 to clamp down on the virus' spread, and the city announced in a statement early Monday that non-residents who do not exhibit symptoms may finally leave Wuhan.

In the new statement issued hours later, the officials called on Wuhan to "resolutely implement" Chinese President Xi Jinping's orders to prevent the outbreak's spread.

China's Standing Committee of the 13th National People's Congress on Monday also approved a draft decision to ban the selling of wildlife in order to prevent its consumption, state-run CGTN reported.

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Chinese authorities issued an original suspension to the trading of wildlife on Jan. 26 as the COVID-19 epidemic was strengthening in China.

The virus is believed to have emerged in early December from a Wuhan seafood market that also sold wild animals with bats currently being the prime suspect.

The committee said the ban's aim is to quickly stop the consumption of wildlife, crack down on its illegal trade and "provide a strong legislative guarantee for winning the battle against the novel coronavirus outbreak," it said.

The WHO said Monday that its joint mission to China has concluded, with its final report suggesting that the epidemic in China peaked and plateaued between January 23 and February 2, and has been in decline ever since.

The fatality rate linked to COVID-19 is estimated at 2 percent to 4 percent in Wuhan, and about 0.7 percent outside the city. Those with mild disease have recovered within two weeks, and people with more severe disease may need three to six weeks to completely recover.

"The measures taken in China averted a significant number of cases," Ghebreyesus said, adding that China's situation suggests the virus can be contained in many countries.

Growing worldwide outbreaks

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Meanwhile, as the rate of infection appears to slow in China, other countries are scrambling to contain the disease.

South Korea also announced more cases Monday, and Seoul's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported two new deaths raising the death toll to seven.

Asian Airlines said it would suspend its Daegu-Jeju route from Tuesday and Air Busan said it canceled its Daegu to Jeju and Daegu to Taipei flights last week when concerns emerged.

The increase in infections also caused Australia to update its travel advisory for the Asian nation warning its citizens to "exercise a high degree of caution" visiting South Korea and to not visit Daegu.

Australia also warned residents to exercise a high degree of caution in Japan based on the advice of its medical officials due to "a heightened risk of sustained local transmission" of COVID-19.

In Europe, Italy has reported the largest outbreak outside Asia with 157, according to a tally kept by the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

The outbreak has forced the nation to suspend its famed Venice Carnival, ban public and private meetings through Saturday and cancel sporting events.

In the Middle East, Kuwait and Bahrain announced their first confirmed cases of the disease and Iran recorded several more deaths.

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The Bahrain Ministry of Health said the infected Bahraini citizen arrived from Iran and was suspected of having contracted the virus as he exhibited symptoms, according to a statement carried by the Bahrain News Agency.

The patient was transferred to the Ebrahim Khalil Kanoo Medical Center where he was confirmed infected with COVID-19 and is currently receiving treatment in isolation, it said.

The government said it will be upping its measures to prevent contamination of the virus, including monitoring those who arrive from infected countries.

In Kuwait, health officials confirmed three people have been infected with the disease, the Kuwait News Agency reported.

Iran's Ministry of Health said on Monday it had recorded 12 deaths from the coronavirus and at least 64 confirmed cases of the disease, according to Iran's Press TV.

The country, which had yet to record a confirmed case of the virus at the start of February, now had the highest death toll to the illness outside of China.

The WHO said the Middle Eastern country had 43 confirmed cases at the end of Sunday and only eight deaths.

In response, neighboring Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Armenia have closed their borders with Iran while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Georgia have imposed travel restrictions.

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Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the border closures are most likely temporary.

"When the coronavirus was detected in our country, our neighbors also felt concern about the spread of the disease to their countries, which is natural," he said. "But, this issue should not prevent popular exchanges or exports and imports among countries."

Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said the government has been able to control the coronavirus outbreak and was no "almost stabilized."

Globally, the death toll from the virus reached at least 2,619 with more than 79,350 people infected, according to the tally by Johns Hopkins.

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