Fears of a coronavirus pandemic grew on Monday after sharp rises in new cases reported in Iran, Italy and South Korea but China relaxed restrictions on movements in several places including Beijing as its rates of new infections dropped.
The surge of infections outside mainland China triggered steep falls in Asian shares and Wall Street stock futures as investors fled to safe havens such as gold. Oil prices tumbled and the Korean won fell to its lowest since August.
South Korea’s fourth-largest city Daegu grew increasingly isolated as the number of infections there increased rapidly, with Asiana Airlines and Korean Air suspending flights to the city until March 9 and March 28 respectively.
“If we cannot block the spread in the Daegu region in an effective way, there are high possibilities it would lead to a nationwide transmission,” Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip told reporters.
In Europe, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said he would talk to his European counterparts soon to discuss how best to cope with a possible epidemic in Europe, after Italy reported a third death from the flu-like virus and 150 infections, from just three before Friday.
“Tonight, there is no epidemic in France. But there is a problematic situation at the door, in Italy, that we are watching with great attention,” Veran told a news conference.
In mainland China, where the virus originated late last year, more than 20 province-level jurisdictions including Beijing and Shanghai, as well as provinces such as Henan and Anhui, reported zero infections, the most since the outbreak began.
President Xi Jinping urged businesses to get back to work though he said the epidemic was still “severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage”.
Yunnan, Guangdong, Shanxi and Guizhou provinces lowered their coronavirus emergency response measures from the most serious level, joining the provinces of Gansu and Liaoning to relax restrictions on movements.
Excluding central Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, mainland China reported 11 new cases, the lowest number since the national health authority started publishing nationwide figures on Jan. 20.
The Hubei capital of Wuhan, a city of 11 million people which has been under virtual lockdown for weeks, officials said healthy people would be allowed to leave the city for crucial operations only.
The coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, mostly in Wuhan. Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 28 other countries and territories, with a death toll of around two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.
Italy sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings in much of the north, including halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases, to try to contain the biggest outbreak in Europe.