World

Number of global coronavirus cases climbs as China announces new cases

South Korea reported an eight-fold jump in infections Saturday with more than 400 cases mostly linked to a church and a hospital, while the death toll in Iran climbed to six and a dozen towns in Italy effectively went into lockdown as health officials around the world battle the novel coronavirus.

Iran reports 6th death due to COVID-19, South Korea sees 8-fold jump in infections

Just days ago, Iran wasn’t reporting any cases of COVID-19. Now, the country says it has 18 cases and four deaths. South Korea is reporting over 340 cases, two deaths and has declared a state of emergency. 2:01

South Korea reported an eight-fold jump in viral infections Saturday with more than 400 cases, mostly linked to a church and a hospital, while the death toll in Iran climbed to six and a dozen towns in Italy effectively went into lockdown as health officials around the world battle the novel coronavirus that has spread from China.

Separately, mainland China reported 648 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, China's National Health Commission said on Sunday local time, up from 397 the previous day.

That brings the total number of confirmed cases in China to 76,936.

Some clusters of the respiratory illness have shown no direct link to travel to China. The spread in Italy prompted local authorities in the Lombardy and Veneto regions to order schools, businesses, and restaurants closed and to cancel sporting events and church masses. Hundreds of residents and workers who came into contact with an estimated 54 people confirmed infected in Italy were in isolation pending test results. Two people infected with COVID-19 have died.

South Korea has reported 433 cases and its third death from the coronavirus, a man in his 40s who was found dead at home and posthumously tested positive. There's concern that the country's death toll could grow. In and around South Korea's fourth-largest city, Daegu, health workers scrambled to screen thousands. Patients with signs of pneumonia or other serious conditions at the Cheongdo hospital were transferred to other facilities, 17 of them in critical condition, Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.

He said that the outbreak had entered a serious new phase, but still expressed cautious optimism that it can be contained to the region surrounding Daegu, where the first case was reported on Tuesday.

Globally, nearly 78,000 people have been infected in 29 countries, and more than 2,300 have died.

A team of global experts with the World Health Organization is on the way to China's Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Saturday. The team has been visiting other parts of China this week.

A cyclist wearing a mask rides past the Codogno hospital in Northern Italy on Saturday. (Luca Bruno/Associated Press)

Tedros also told a meeting of African health ministers that the WHO is concerned about cases with "no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case." He is especially concerned about the growing number of cases in Iran.

But Tedros said the top concern is the potential spread to countries with weaker health systems, including in Africa. The 20 per cent of virus patients with severe or critical disease require intensive care equipment that is "in short supply in many African countries," he said. Just one case of the coronavirus has been confirmed in Africa, in Egypt.

The death toll from the virus in China rose to 2,442 on Sunday local time, up by 97 from Saturday, Chinese health authorities said. 

A few Chinese provinces, eager to restart factories and their economies, began easing those restrictions after reporting no new cases in recent days. Liaoning and Gansu provinces both lowered their emergency response level, and two cities in Shaanxi province resumed bus services and removed checkpoints at railway stations, bus stations and on some highways.

South Korea's 'special management zone'

Of the 229 new cases in South Korea, 200 are from Daegu and nearby areas. By Saturday morning, the city of 2.5 million and surrounding areas counted 352 cases, including two fatalities in the Cheongdo hospital. Both patients had pneumonia.

The central government has declared the area a "special management zone" and is channelling support to ease a shortage in hospital beds, medical personnel and equipment.

While some experts say the coronavirus has started to spread nationwide, pointing to a number of infections in Seoul and elsewhere that weren't immediately traceable, government officials remained hopeful of containing the outbreak.

Watch: COVID-19 cases rise quickly in South Korean city Daegu

South Korea on Saturday reported an eight-fold jump in viral infections in four days to 433, most of them linked to a church and a hospital in and around Daegu, South Korea, the country's fourth-largest city. 1:53

"Although we are beginning to see some more cases nationwide, infections are still sporadic outside of the special management zone of Daegu and North Gyeongsang province," Kim said during a briefing. He called for maintaining strong border controls to prevent infections from China and elsewhere from entering South Korea.

Nationwide, the numbers told of a ballooning problem. There were 20 new cases reported Wednesday, 53 on Thursday and 100 on Friday.

Around 230 of those have been directly linked to a single house of worship, a Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where a woman in her 60s attended two services before testing positive for the virus.

Visitors wearing face masks walk near the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

Officials are also investigating a possible link between churchgoers and the spike in infections at the Cheongdo hospital, where more than 110 people have been infected so far, mostly patients at a mental illness ward.

Health officials were screening some 9,300 church followers, and said that 1,261 of them have exhibited cough and other symptoms.

Among them, four had travelled abroad in recent months, including one to China, although that trip came in early January and was not near Hubei.

All 74 sites operated by the Shincheonji Church have been closed and churchgoers have been told to instead watch services online for a sect whose leader claims to be an angel of Christ, but who is dismissed by many outsiders as a cult leader. Its teachings revolve largely around the Book of Revelation, a chapter of the New Testament known mostly for its apocalyptic foreshadowing.

Medical workers wearing protective gear carry a patient infected with the new coronavirus to a hospital in Chuncheon, South Korea, on Saturday. (Lee Sang-hak/Yonhap via AP)

Health and city officials say the woman who first tested positive had contact with some 1,160 people, both at the church, a restaurant and a hospital where she was treated for injuries from a car accident.

But officials say it's unlikely that the woman set off the chain of infections, and that she was probably just the first person to be detected in an area where the virus was circulating in the population.

Anxiety is also palpable in other parts of the country. In Seoul, South Korea's capital, fear of the virus led many to avoid shops and restaurants and instead eat at home and order necessities online. Buses and subways were full of mask-clad commuters.

Rallies were banned in downtown Seoul, but hundreds went ahead with an anti-government protest on Saturday.

Countries taking precautions 

The first three cases in the country's 600,000-member military also sprung up on separate bases Friday, bringing added concern. A U.S. Army garrison in Daegu restricted access and imposed self-quarantine for American troops.

"There remain zero confirmed cases of USFK personnel with COVID-19 despite the rise in confirmed South Korean cases," U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement.

In Japan, new cases of the coronavirus include a middle school teacher in her 60s, prompting concern for the health of other teachers and students in Makuhari in Chiba prefecture southeast of Tokyo.

Watch: WHO concerned about coronavirus infections with no clear link to China

The WHO is increasingly concerned about COVID-19 outside China, especially in South Korea and Iran. 2:51

Iranian health authorities on Saturday reported the country's sixth death from the virus. The governor of Markazi province told the official IRNA news agency that tests of a patient who recently died were positive for the virus. Ali Aghazadeh said the person also had a heart problem. So far, 28 cases have been confirmed in Iran, including at least five of the six who died.

Saudi Arabia barred travel to Iran and said anyone coming from there can enter only after a 14-day quarantine. The decision directly impacts thousands of Iranians who travel to Mecca and Medina for Islamic pilgrimages, effectively barring them from the kingdom.

In the United States, 35 people have tested positive for the virus, including 18 who returned home from a quarantined cruise ship in Japan and one new case reported Friday in California.

People wearing protective masks are seen in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

Egypt is among 13 countries that the WHO identified as high priority in Africa because of direct travel links to China or a high volume of Chinese travel.

A growing number of African nations now have the laboratory ability to test for the coronavirus, up from two early this month. About 11,000 health workers have been trained about the illness, Tedros said, and the WHO has shipped more than 30,000 sets of personal protective equipment to several African nations.

Eight Canadians have tested positive for the virus since the outbreak began late last year, with three of them based in Ontario and the rest in British Columbia. A sixth person in B.C. is believed to be infected.

With files from CBC News