South Korea added its most new virus cases in months on Friday, driven by a surge around the capital that appears to be spreading nationwide.
The 324 new infections was its highest single day total since early March and the eighth consecutive triple-digit daily increase.
Most of the people recently infected live in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan region, where health workers are scrambling to track transmissions from various sources, including churches, restaurants, schools and workers.
But the new infections reported on Friday were from practically all of South Korea's major cities, including Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Sejong and Daegu, the south-eastern city that was the epicentre of a massive outbreak in late February and March.
The newest figures reported by South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention brought the nation's caseload to 16,670, including 309 deaths.
Health authorities had managed to contain the virus in the Daegu region by April, ramping up tests and extensively using cellphone location data, credit-card records and security camera footage to trace and isolate contacts, which allowed the country to weather the outbreak without placing meaningful restrictions on its economy.
Another factor was that the narrowness of the Daegu outbreak effectively aided its containment — most were tied to a single church congregation of thousands of members.
It is not clear whether South Korea’s previous formula of success will be as effective since the Seoul region has many more people and new clusters are occurring in varied places as people increasingly venture out in public.
Churches had been a major source of new cases in the Seoul area before authorities shut them this week while raising social distancing restrictions, something they had resisted for months out of economic concerns. Nightclubs, karaoke bars, buffet restaurants and computer gaming cafes are also closed while spectators have been prohibited again from baseball and soccer games.
Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said 739 infections confirmed as of Friday were linked to members of a northern Seoul church led by a vocal critic of the country’s president. Sarang Jeil Church pastor Jun Kwang-hun was hospitalised with Covid-19 on Monday after participating in an anti-government protest last week where he shared a microphone on stage with other activists.
Health workers have used location data provided by cellphone carriers to identify about 15,000 people who spent more than 30 minutes on the streets where the protests took place and are alerting them to get tested, Mr Kim said. At least 60 infections have been linked to the protests.
Elsewhere in the Asia and Pacific region, India’s coronavirus caseload crossed 2.9 million with a surge of 68,898 in the past 24 hours. The health ministry on Friday also reported 983 more deaths, taking total fatalities to 54,849.
India has been recording at least 50,000 new infections per day since mid-July. Four of India’s 28 states now account for 63 per cent of fatalities and 54.6 per cent of cases. The worst-hit states are Maharashtra on the west coast and Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in the south.
Health authorities in China's capital Beijing removed a requirement for people to wear masks outdoors, further relaxing rules aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus after the city reported 13 consecutive days without new cases.
Despite the relaxed guidelines, a large proportion of people continued to wear masks in Beijing on Friday.
Beijing's municipal Centres for Disease Control first said residents could go without masks in outdoor areas in late April, though the rules were swiftly reversed in June after a new outbreak in a large wholesale market in the city's south.
China has reported no new locally transmitted cases on the mainland for five days after successfully controlling flare ups in the capital, Xinjiang and elsewhere.
Australia’s hard-hit Victoria state on Friday reported its lowest tally of new coronavirus cases in more than six weeks. Victoria’s Health Department reported 179 new infections and nine deaths in the latest 24-hour period, the lowest daily increase since July 8. The state capital Melbourne has been under a strict lockdown for two weeks, and authorities have said daily infections will have to fall to single digits or low double digits before Melbourne’s lockdown is relaxed.
In Papua New Guinea, a Chinese mining company claimed to have immunised employees against Covid-19 in an apparent vaccination trial, an Australian newspaper reported.
Papua New Guinea's health department is investigating the claim by Ramu NiCo Management, The Australian newspaper said. Papua New Guinea has not approved any vaccine trials and says any vaccine imported into the country must be approved by its health authorities.
The newspaper reported that a document on a Ramu letterhead said 48 Chinese employees were “vaccinated with Sars-COV-2 vaccine” on August 10 and tests on them might return false-positive results.
Papua New Guinea has recorded only 361 Covid-19 cases and four deaths but infections have surged in the past month.
Meanwhile, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday deferred a decision on whether to ease a lockdown on the city of Auckland as 11 new coronavirus infections were reported, including nine cases of community transmission.
Ms Ardern said after a review of the lockdown that there was no need to change any settings at this stage, and promised to review them again on Monday.
The latest cases brought the total in New Zealand to 1,315, including 105 active cases. The country of 5 million people has reported 22 deaths from Covid-19.