BEIJING – Scientists are studying reports that the incubation period for the new coronavirus could be longer than the currently believed 14 days, potentially casting doubt on current quarantine criteria for containing the virus amid an increasingly urgent effort to stop the epidemic from spreading in Northeast Asia and across the world.
South Korea and Japan reported a sharp spike in cases Saturday, while in China, an additional 109 people died, and a fifth person died from the virus in Iran. Italian authorities on Saturday said the country was seeing a sudden rise in coronavirus cases, with roughly 50 confirmed in the past two days – an outbreak that represents the largest yet across Europe.
Meanwhile, scientists in China reported indications that the virus might be transmissible through urine.
A team of experts from the World Health Organization was due to arrive Saturday in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday stressed the urgency of containing the spread of the coronavirus, after cases were reported earlier in Iran and Lebanon.
“Although the window of opportunity is narrowing to contain the outbreak, we still have a chance to contain it,” he told reporters in Geneva. “If we don’t, if we squander the opportunity, then there will be a serious problem on our hands.”
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Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has not visited Wuhan since the outbreak began, was briefed that the situation in the city and in surrounding Hubei province “remains grim and complex,” according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency published Saturday.
“The nationwide inflection point of the epidemic has not yet arrived,” the report said after a meeting of Communist Party leaders.
China’s National Health Commission reported Saturday that 397 new cases of coronavirus had been diagnosed Friday, taking the total to more than 76,000. The rate of infection outside Hubei appears to have slowed markedly, though there has been a great deal of confusion about the statistics this week as officials have repeatedly changed the criteria for confirming cases.
Among the new cases discovered Friday were a 70-year-old man in Hubei who was confirmed as infected after 27 days in isolation, while a man in Jiangxi province tested positive after 14 days of centralized quarantine and five days of isolation at home. On Thursday, authorities reported that a man in Hubei had tested positive for coronavirus after what appeared to be a 38-day incubation period with no symptoms.
The United States is also struggling with domestic fallout from its responses to the virus. The Californian city of Costa Mesta has sued the federal government over its plan to transfer quarantined coronavirus patients from Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento to the former Fairview Developmental Center as early as this weekend. The city said that the area in question is surrounded by residential neighborhoods and that placing patients with a highly contagious disease so close by could pose a risk to public health.
A federal judge granted Costa Mesa’s request Friday, temporarily blocking the transfer of up to 50 patients. The restraining order prohibits state and federal government authorities from transporting anyone infected with the with coronavirus or who has been exposed to the disease to Costa Mesa before a hearing at 2 p.m. Monday at the Santa Ana federal courthouse, according to the Los Angeles Times.
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In Seoul, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Saturday that 229 additional cases of the coronavirus had been detected, taking the total to 433, more than doubling in the space of a day. This makes it the worst-affected country outside China.
“Apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, [South] Korea now has the most cases outside China, and we’re working closely with the government to fully understand the transmission dynamics that led to this increase,” Tedros said.
Most of the new cases have been traced to existing clusters at a church in southern city of Daegu and a hospital in nearby Cheongdo County, according to the KCDC.
The South Korean government has designated Daegu and surrounding North Gyeongsang province as “special care zones” where containment efforts and support will be concentrated.
More than half of South Korea’s cases are connected to the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.
Since members of the church attended a funeral at nearby Cheongdo Daenam hospital, 111 coronavirus cases have been reported there, including two patients who died from the virus.
The mass infection at the hospital is centered on its locked psychiatric ward, where a confined environment could have aggravated transmissions, said Jung Eun-Kyeong, director of the KCDC.
A man in his 40s was found dead at his home in city of Gyeongju, east of Daegu, after becoming infected with the virus. He is the third person to die from the virus in South Korea.
In Japan, the number of coronavirus cases rose to 121 on Saturday, more than tripling in a week. That number excludes the 634 people on board the Diamond Princess who contracted the virus.
One of the latest cases was a teacher in her 60s at a public junior high school east of Tokyo, who complained of nausea while working. The mayor of Chiba city said the school will be closed until Wednesday, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The teacher had not traveled abroad in the past two weeks and has no record of having been in contact with a known infected person, underlining the fact that the virus is now spreading almost invisibly throughout the country, experts say.
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As numbers suddenly rose in Italy, the government has scrambled to contain the new outbreak, asking some 50,000 people to stay indoors and suspending all public events – including religious ceremonies and school – in 10 small towns to the south of Milan.
Until a few days ago, Italy had seen only three confirmed infections, including a pair of Chinese tourists.
“There is quite an evident contagion, a very strong one,” said Giulio Gallera, health chief of the northern Lombardy region, which has seen the majority of the cases.
Italian officials on Friday attributed the country’s first death to the coronavirus, and on Saturday said a 77-year-old woman had also tested positive for the virus after being found dead in her home. But Italian authorities said the woman suffered from other health conditions, and they were unsure whether it was the virus that had killed her.
As of Saturday afternoon, there were 39 confirmed cases in the prosperous Lombardy region, which includes the country’s financial hub, Milan. There were another 12 cases in the neighboring northern region of Veneto.
The regional president of Veneto, Luca Zaia, said it is becoming harder to figure out how the virus is jumping from one place to the next.
“It goes to show you that having other cases of contagion is absolutely possible,” Zaia said.
According to Italian media reports, one of the first people to come down with the virus was a 38-year-old who’d had dinner with somebody who had just come back from China. But some three weeks passed between that dinner and the time the man came down with a fever. In between, he ran a half-marathon, played soccer and traveled to several towns, according to La Repubblica, a major Italian daily.
Iran, meanwhile, announced its fifth death from the virus, raising the country’s confirmed cases to 28.
The outbreak in Iran has so far been centered in the holy Shiite city of Qom, where on Wednesday authorities suspended schools and religious gatherings as a precaution. On Saturday, Iranian authorities also closed schools in the capital, Tehran, and issued a temporary ban on cinemas and art-related events across the country, state-run Fars News Agency reported.
Other countries in the region have also reacted with alarm, particularly after Lebanon’s first coronavirus case Friday was found to be a woman who had just traveled from Qom.
In the past few days, Iraq and Kuwait suspended direct flights to Iran, while Iraq temporarily halted new visas for Iranian nationals and, along with Turkey, imposed restrictions on travelers who had recently arrived from Iran. Kuwait Airways said Saturday that it would be chartering special flights to evacuate citizens from Mashhad, Iran.
As fears mounted, Israel announced Saturday that nine Koreans who had recently returned to Korea from a tour in Israel tested positive for the virus. Israeli and Palestinian authorities on Saturday urged anyone who may have interacted with the group visiting from Feb. 8 to 15 to self-quarantine as they work to trace who may have had contact with the tourists, who visited major cities including Jerusalem.
A spokeswoman for Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority said Saturday that all non-Israeli citizens arriving on a direct flight from Seoul to Tel Aviv that evening would be denied entry. Israel’s Health Ministry has ordered Israelis returning from South Korea to self-quarantine.
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Meanwhile, tests are continuing on the crew members on board the Diamond Princess. At least 74 crew members have so far been found to have the virus.
All of the passengers have now been tested and almost all have left the ship, either to go home if they tested negative, to local hospitals or government facilities if they have the virus, or back to their home countries.
Some passengers were asked to stay aboard to serve an additional quarantine if their cabin mate contracted the virus, but this group is also disembarking Saturday to serve out the rest of their quarantine in a government facility, local media reported.
More than 200 port calls in Japan by international cruise ships have been canceled since the beginning of February due to the coronavirus outbreak, a Kyodo News survey showed Saturday, with the lost revenue from passengers coming ashore dealing another blow to Japan’s weak economy.
Controversy continues to simmer about the infection-control procedures on the ship after a doctor complained Tuesday about “chaotic” and scary conditions on board.
Six people working on the boat or with the passengers, including four government officials, a medic and an ambulance driver, have contracted the virus.
Media reports questioned why about 90 government officials who worked on the ship have returned to work without being tested for the coronavirus. Asked about this, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the government is “trying to confirm what operations staff were involved in specifically.”
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The 83-year-old woman who tested positive for the coronavirus when she arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport after disembarking in Cambodia from the MS Westerdam cruise ship has recovered, Malaysia health authorities said Saturday.
The woman “is showing good improvement and signs of recovery, however, she is still being monitored and managed in hospital for a slight cough,” Malaysia’s director general of health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, said in a statement.
The woman repeatedly tested negative while on board the ship and when she disembarked in Sihanoukville, then twice tested positive while transiting in Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 15. That set off a global scramble to track the hundreds of other passengers who had also disembarked then boarded planes bound for home.
The woman was taken to a hospital and given antiviral treatment and supplementary oxygen, and she showed improvement after 72 hours of treatment initiation, Abdullah said. Two more tests, conducted 24 hours apart, both came back negative for coronavirus.
But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cast doubt on whether the woman was ever infected, saying she “never had coronavirus to our knowledge.”
“I have confirmed that all the passengers were tested, and they have come back negative for coronavirus, including the person who initially tested positive,” USA Today quoted CDC spokesperson Richard Quartarone as saying. The woman “may have had a respiratory illness, but if she did, it was not covid-19,” he said, using the official name for the virus.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Health had previously cleared the 747 crew members who were still on board the Westerdam and the 781 passengers who were still in the country of coronavirus infection.
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Denyer reported from Tokyo, Harlan from Rome and Berger from Washington. The Washington Post’s Lyric Li in Beijing, Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo, Min Joo Kim in Seoul, Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington contributed reporting.