Medical staff wearing protective suits outside a hospital in Daegu, South Korea, Sunday, March 1, 2020. The coronavirus has claimed its first victim in the United States as the number of cases shot up in Iran, Italy and South Korea and the spreading outbreak shook the global economy. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP)

Virus outbreak batters economies, raises fear of spread

March 01, 2020 - 9:19 am

TOKYO (AP) — Amid fears about where the next outbreak of a fast-spreading new virus would appear, infections and deaths continued to rise across the globe Sunday, emptying streets of tourists and workers, shaking economies and rewriting the realities of daily life.

Panic-buying of daily necessities emerged in Japan, tourist sites across Asia, Europe and the Mideast were deserted, and governments closed schools and banned big gatherings. Amusement parks have been shuttered and concerts canceled.

In Paris, the Louvre Museum closed its doors and priests stopped placing sacramental bread in worshippers' mouths.

While the new coronavirus has extended its reach across the world, geographic clusters of infections were emerging, with Iran, Italy and South Korea seeing rising cases. The United States, meanwhile, recorded its first death, a man in his 50s in Washington state who had underlying health conditions but who hadn’t traveled to any affected areas.

"Additional cases in the United States are likely, but healthy individuals should be able to fully recover,” President Donald Trump said at a Saturday briefing, where officials announced heightened warnings about travel to certain regions of Italy and South Korea as well as a ban on travel to Iran.

China on Sunday reported a slight uptick in new cases over the past 24 hours to 573, the first time in five days that number has exceeded 500. They remain almost entirely confined to the hardest-hit province of Hubei and its capital, Wuhan.

South Korea reported 210 additional cases and two more deaths from the virus, raising its totals to 3,736 cases and 20 fatalities. South Korea has confirmed the second largest number of virus infections outside mainland China, with most of the cases reported in the southeastern city of Daegu and nearby areas.

South Korea's president used a speech marking the 101st anniversary of an anti-Japanese independence uprising to call for national unity to overcome the soaring virus outbreak.

Iran's death toll from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, climbed to 54 as the number of confirmed cases jumped overnight by more than half, to 978 people. The new figures represent 11 more deaths than reported on Saturday and 385 new cases.

The outbreak in Iran has prompted its neighbors to seal their borders to Iranians, while other Gulf states have halted flights to Iran.

The list of countries hit by the virus has climbed past 60. More than 87,000 people worldwide have contracted the virus, including nearly 3,000 deaths.

Many cases of the virus have been relatively mild, and some of those infected apparently show no symptoms at all. That can allow for easier spread, and worries are mounting that prolonged quarantines, supply chain disruptions and a sharp reduction in tourism and business travel could weaken the global economy or even cause a recession.

Around the world, the virus, and the fear that accompanies it, caused turmoil.

Islam's holiest sites were closed to foreign pilgrims, while professional baseball teams played in deserted stadiums in Japan. Officials in France advised residents to forgo customary greeting kisses.

The spreading epidemic even shut down France's Louvre Museum on Sunday, with workers who guard its trove of artworks fearful of being contaminated by the museum's flow of visitors from around the world.

“We are very worried because we have visitors from everywhere,” said Andre Sacristin, a Louvre employee and union representative for its staffers.

“The risk is very, very, very great," he said in a phone interview. While there are no known virus infections among the museum's 2,300 workers, “it’s only a question of time,” he said.

A short statement from the Louvre said a staff meeting about virus prevention efforts stopped the museum from opening as scheduled Sunday morning. On Sunday afternoon, would-be visitors were still waiting to get inside.

The shutdown followed a government decision Saturday to ban indoor public gatherings of more than 5,000 people.

South Korea's men’s professional basketball league said its regular season would be halted from Sunday, after an infection was reported at a hotel in southern South Korea where a team had stayed.

Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan announced they would close, and big events were canceled, including a concert series by the K-pop supergroup BTS.

The last group of about 130 crew members got off the Diamond Princess on Sunday, vacating the contaminated cruise ship and ending Japan's much criticized quarantine that left more than one fifth of the ship's original population infected with the new virus.

The British-flagged and U.S.-operated Diamond Princess had carried an infected passenger part way before returning to its home port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, on Feb. 3. Of the 3,711 passengers and crew members on board, 705 were infected on the ship, triggering international criticism of the quarantine and Japan's disease control capability.

In France, the archbishop of Paris advised parish priests not to administer communion by placing the sacramental bread in worshippers' mouths. Instead, priests were told to place the bread in their hands.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recommended that a meeting March 9 where about 10,000 people are to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a U.N. conference on women’s rights be drastically scaled back because of the spread of COVID-19.

Thailand reported its first death from the disease on Sunday, a 35-year old Thai man who worked as a salesperson and had contact with foreign tourists.

Italian authorities say the country now has more than 1,100 coronavirus cases, with 29 deaths so far.

Pakistan's interior ministry said it was closing its Chaman border with Afghanistan for a week amid the virus outbreak. Pakistan has confirmed four cases, and Afghanistan has confirmed one case.

As governments scrambled to control the spread and businesses wrestled with interruptions, researchers working to better understand the disease reported that the death rate may be lower than initially feared as more mild cases are counted.

A study by Chinese researchers published Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzing 1,099 patients at more than 500 hospitals throughout China calculated a death rate of 1.4%, substantially lower than earlier studies that focused on patients in Wuhan, where it started and has been most severe.

Assuming there are many more cases with no or very mild symptoms, “the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%,” U.S. health officials wrote in an editorial in the journal.

That would make the new virus more like a severe seasonal flu than a disease similar to its genetic cousins SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or MERS, Middle East respiratory syndrome.

There’s growing evidence of the vast cost and economic turmoil of the disease that emerged in central China in December. A new report shows a sharp decline in Chinese manufacturing in February after efforts to contain the virus shut down much of the world’s second-largest economy. The survey comes as global stock markets fall sharply on fears that the virus will spread abroad.

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Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, John Leicester in Paris, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Joe McDonald in Beijing, Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Edith M. Lederer in New York contributed to this report.

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