BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – The coronavirus death toll climbed to seven in Italy on Monday and several Middle East countries were dealing with their first infections, sending markets into a tailspin over fears of a global pandemic even as China eased curbs with no new cases reported in Beijing and other cities.
The virus had put Chinese cities into lockdown in recent weeks, disrupted air traffic and blocked global supply chains for everything from cars to smartphones.
But China’s actions, especially in Wuhan – the epicenter of the outbreak – probably prevented hundreds of thousands of cases, said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) delegation in China, Bruce Aylward, urging the rest of the world to learn the lesson of acting fast.
“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,” he said.
The surge of cases outside mainland China triggered sharp falls in global markets as investors fled to safe havens. European equities markets suffered their biggest slump since mid-2016, gold soared to a seven-year high and oil tumbled 4%. [MKTS/GLOB][.N]
The Dow Jones Industrials dove to a two-month low while the S&P 500 and Nasdaq were at their lowest in three weeks on Monday, all off by about 3%.
Wall Street’s fear gauge, CBOE Volatility Index , jumped to a six-month high.[.N] Early, last week, Wall Street’s main indexes notched record highs, partly on optimism that the global economy would be able to snap back from the coronavirus.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the word “pandemic” did not fit the facts.
“We must focus on containment while preparing for a potential pandemic,” he told reporters in Geneva, adding that the world was not witnessing an uncontained spread or large-scale deaths.
The epidemic in China peaked between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and has been declining since, the WHO said.
Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program, told reporters it was still possible to contain the virus and that it might appear each year like the flu.
“The virus may settle down into an endemic pattern of transmission, into a seasonal pattern of transmission, or it could accelerate into a full-blown global pandemic,” he said in Geneva on Monday. “And at this point, it is not possible to say which of those realities is going to happen.”
The White House is considering asking lawmakers for emergency funding to ramp up its response to the fast-spreading virus, a White House spokesman and an administration source said on Monday. Politico and the Washington Post had reported the Trump administration may request $1 billion.
ITALY AT RISK
Europe’s biggest outbreak is in Italy, with some 220 infections – compared with just three before Friday – and a seventh 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.
Shops are shut, bars are closed and people speak to each other from a safe distance.
Japan had 773 cases as of late Sunday, mostly on the cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo.
In South Korea, drone footage here showed what appeared to be hundreds of people queuing up outside a Daegu supermarket to buy face masks.
(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus here)
MEASURE OF RELIEF
Liang Wannian of China’s National Health Commission said while the rapid rise had been halted, the situation was still grim. He said over 3,000 medical staff had become infected, most in Hubei province surrounding Wuhan, probably due to the lack of protective gear and fatigue.
Excluding Hubei, mainland China reported 11 new cases, the lowest since the national health authority started publishing nationwide daily figures on Jan. 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 Feb. 23. The death toll rose by 150 to 2,592.
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.
Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to some 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 (020560.KS) and Korean Air (003490.KS) suspending flights there until next month.
Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Afghanistan and Iraq reported their first new coronavirus cases, all in people who had been to Iran, where the toll was 12 dead and 61 infected. Most of the infections were in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom.
A WHO team is due in Iran on Tuesday.
Reporting by Gabreil Crossley and Ryan Woo in Beijing and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Judy Hua, Huizhong Wu, Yawen Chen, Lusha Zhang and David Kirton in Beijing, Engen Tham in Shangai, Joyce Lee and Cynthia Kim in Seoul, Tom Westbrook in Singapore, Kate Kelland in London, Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Andrea Shalal in Riyadh, Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields in Geneva and Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann in Washington; Writing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot