Coronavirus reaches South America as Brazil confirms first case

Health officials in the United States have warned Americans that it's a matter of time before the disease spreads

epa08249521 General view of the Albert Einstein Hospital, where what would be the first case of coronavirus in Brazil was detected, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 26 February 2020. Health authorities warned that a new analysis for the final confirmation must still be performed. The patient, according to official sources, is a 61-year-old Brazilian who was between 9 and 21 February in Lombardy, in northern Italy, a country in which eleven deaths and about 320 infected by the virus have been recorded so far.  EPA/Sebastiao Moreira
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Brazil's Health Ministry on Wednesday confirmed the first case of the coronavirus in Latin America, after a Sao Paulo hospital flagged the possible infection of a 61-year-old man who recently visited Italy.

Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta told journalists at a news conference that the government has already taken measures to tackle the epidemic prior to its arrival in Brazil.

On Tuesday, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tweeted a warning that the disease, which is officially known as Covid 19, would likely spread across the United States before long.

"Now is the time for US businesses, hospitals, and communities to begin preparing for the possible spread of #Covid19. CDC continues to work with business, education & healthcare sectors, encouraging employers to be prepared."

Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, said in a news briefing that, “it’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.”

Stock markets in the US plummeted shortly after the news conference.

Worldwide growth is forecast to stand at 2.9 per cent this year, close to decade lows, as geopolitical uncertainties and the emergence of the deadly virus are expected to dampen a rise in confidence and investments, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) said in a report on Wednesday.

“The global economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak is set to be more profound than that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS], owing to the much larger role that China plays in the global economy today,” said Agathe Demarais, the EIU’s global forecasting director. “Disruption of international trade will become entrenched as supply chains are diverted from China.”

Dozens of countries have now announced cases of coronavirus as authorities scramble to stop the spread of infection and scientists race to find a cure. In Europe, Asia and the Middle East, strict containment measures have seen towns cordoned off and people kept under quarantine after coming into contact with the infection.

On Monday, Oman, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Bahrain confirmed their first cases of coronavirus, with increases in the number of infections announced over the subsequent days. All involved people who had travelled from Iran.

Gulf states have suspended links with Iran, which is linked to the majority of more than 210 confirmed cases of the virus now spread across the Middle East.

The infection tally stands at 139 with 19 deaths from the disease, Iranian state TV confirmed on Wednesday. Iran, which is battling the deadliest outbreak outside China, said it may be several weeks before it can contain the virus.

Schools, universities and cultural and entertainment facilities across the country have been closed but President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged on Wednesday that it may take “one, two or three weeks” to get control of the virus.

This comes a day after the country’s deputy health minister tested positive for the illness. Overnight, workers in the capital Tehran disinfected mass-transit buses and the capital’s normally busy underground metro system.

On Wednesday, Greece became the newest country to announce a case of the virus when a woman tested positive after returning from Italy. The country reported a 45-per cent one-day increase in infections as Austria, Croatia and Switzerland announced their first cases on Tuesday.

The three countries said the cases involved people who had travelled to Italy, which has reported 12 deaths and 374 cases of the virus. The deaths have been among elderly patients who suffered from other ailments, Italian officials said. Most are concentrated in the country’s north.

“Viruses don’t know borders and they don’t stop at them,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza said at the start of a crisis meeting with World Health Organisation and European Union representatives in Rome.

A hotel in the Canary Islands was put under quarantine after an Italian couple from Italy’s hard-hit north tested positive. One guest in the hotel said it felt like being “monkeys in a cage.”

France, Germany and Spain have also reported cases involving people who have recently been to Italy.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte defended measures taken by Italian health services to contain the outbreak and predicted a stabilising of numbers soon. But he acknowledged that the rise in cases - the most outside Asia - was “worrisome”.

“Obviously I can’t say I’m not worried because I don’t want anyone to think we’re underestimating this emergency,” he said before a meeting with a visiting World Health Organisation mission. “But we trust that with the measures we’ve implemented there will be a containing effect in the coming days.”

Italy has closed schools, museums and theaters in the two regions where clusters have formed and troops are enforcing quarantines around 10 towns in Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo’Euganeo.

In South Korea, workers sanitised public buses, while in China, banks disinfected banknotes using ultraviolet rays. In Germany, authorities stressed “sneezing etiquette,” while in the United States, doctors announced a clinical trial of a possible coronavirus treatment.

Around the world, events have been cut short or cancelled to prevent the spread of infection, with Japan calling off the football league and Italy closing the Venice Carnival as they battle the outbreak.

Religious ceremonies have also been affected. As Christians marked the start of Lent with Ash Wednesday, they found churches closed and congregations wearing face masks. Services in Singapore were broadcast online to keep people from crowded sanctuaries and bishops in South Korea shuttered churches for what they said was the first time in the Catholic Church’s 236-year history there.

More than 80,000 people have now been infected with coronavirus, which originated at an animal market in Wuhan, China. While the infection rate is slowing in mainland China, around the world the number of new cases is increasing.

The World Health Organisation has called for countries to “prepare for a potential pandemic” as the virus spreads across continents.

On Wednesday, South Korea reported more than 100 new cases of coronavirus, raising the total number of infections to 1,261, according to local media. Eleven people have now died of the virus there. South Korea has stepped up measures to identify new infections with plans to test more than 200,000 members of a church in the southeastern city of Daegu at the heart of the outbreak.

Concern has also mounted around military bases in South Korea, with 20 additional infections among its troops and some 9,570 people in isolation, according the South Korean military.

The US military, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, confirmed the first infection of an American soldier, a 23-year-old man based at Camp Carroll near Daegu, a day after Americans said a military spouse also had contracted the illness. Bowling alleys, movie theaters and a golf course on four American bases in the country were closed.

“This is a setback, it’s true, there’s no getting around that. But it’s not the end of the war,” Colonel Edward Ballanco, commander of the US Army Garrison Daegu told troops in a video message. “We are very well equipped to fight this thing off.”