Italy, South Korea and Iran reported sharp rises in COVID-19 cases on Monday, but China eased curbs as the rate of infection there slowed and a visiting World Health Organization team said a turning point had been reached in the epicentre, Wuhan.
The virus has put Chinese cities into lockdown in recent weeks, disrupted air traffic to the workshop of the world and blocked global supply chains for everything from cars and car parts to smartphones.
But China's actions, especially in Wuhan, have probably prevented hundreds of thousands of cases, said the head of the WHO delegation in China, Bruce Aylward, urging the rest of the world to learn the lesson of acting fast.
“The world is in your debt,” Mr. Aylward, speaking in Beijing, told the people of Wuhan. “The people of that city have gone through an extraordinary period and they’re still going through it.”
The surge of cases outside mainland China triggered sharp falls in global share markets and Wall Street stock futures as investors fled to safe havens. European share markets suffered their biggest slump since mid-2016, gold soared to a seven-year high, oil tumbled nearly 4% and the Korean won fell to its lowest level since August.
But U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the global economy or supply chains, saying it was simply too soon to know.
Mr. Aylward said multiple data sources suggested that the rate of infection in Wuhan was falling. “They’re at a point now where the number of cured people coming out of hospitals each day is much more than the sick going in.” But he added: “One of the challenges obviously is the strain on the system ... they still have tens of thousands of sick people.”
Liang Wannian of the National Health Commission said only that the rapid rise had been halted and the situation was still grim. He said more than 3,000 medical staff had become infected, most of them in Hubei province surrounding Wuhan, probably due to the lack of protective gear and to fatigue. Excluding Hubei, mainland China reported 11 new cases, the lowest since the national health authority started publishing nationwide daily figures on January 20.
The coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, most of them in Hubei. Overall, China reported 409 new cases on the mainland, down from 648 a day earlier, taking the total number of infections to 77,150 cases as of February 23. The death toll rose by 150 to 2,592.
But there was a measure of relief for the world's second-largest economy as more than 20 province-level jurisdictions, including Beijing and Shanghai, reported zero new infections, the best showing since the outbreak began.
29 countries affected
Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.
South Korea reported 231 new cases, taking its total to 833. Many are in its fourth-largest city, Daegu, which became more isolated with Asiana Airlines and Korean Air suspending flights there until next month.
Iran, which announced its first two cases last Wednesday, said it now had 61 cases and 12 deaths. Most of the infections were in the Shia Muslim holy city of Qom.
Elsewhere in West Asia, Bahrain and Iraq reported their first cases, and Kuwait and Oman reported a combined total of five cases involving people who had been in Iran.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed restrictions on travel and immigration from Iran. Afghanistan also reported its first case, officials said.
Europe's biggest outbreak is in Italy, with some 150 infections — compared with just three before Friday — and a sixth death.
In northern Italy, authorities sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings across a wide area, halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases.
The outbreak originated in Codogno, a small town southeast of Milan where Lombardy's first infected patient, a 38-year-old man now in stable condition, was treated.
Austria briefly suspended train services through the Alps from Italy after two travellers coming from Italy showed symptoms of fever.