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US coronavirus death toll rises as Chinese cases fall


WASHINGTON (AFP) -- The death toll from the new coronavirus in the United States climbed to six on Monday as the contagion took root in the country's Pacific Northwest and continued its march across the globe.

Worldwide, close to 3,100 people have succumbed to the illness even as a clear shift in the crisis was emerging, with nine times as many cases recorded outside China as inside, according to the UN health agency.

Andorra, the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Jordan, Latvia, Portugal, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia were among countries that confirmed their first cases, along with Senegal, which became the second sub-Saharan African country to do so.

All of the US deaths have occurred in the state of Washington, where officials warned residents the battle against the disease was shifting from containment to mitigation.

"The risk for all of us of becoming infected will be increasing," said Jeff Duchin, a health officer in King County where five of the deaths occurred. The district is home to Seattle, a city with a population of more than 700,000 people.

The White House, which has been accused of downplaying the threat from the virus, continued to strike a bullish tone. Vice President Mike Pence declared that a treatment "could literally be available by this summer, or early fall."

He was likely referring to remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed by the pharmaceutical firm Gilead that has already been used to treat one US patient and was moving toward two expansive final stage trials in Asia.

Pence also announced American pharmaceuticals were teaming up in a consortium to fight the virus, and said that South Korea and Italy, two of the hardest-hit nations, would screen all their airline passengers bound for the US.

Despite its world-class hospitals and cutting edge research, the US is viewed as vulnerable to an epidemic because of glaring disparities in its health care system, including nearly 28 million people without coverage.

'Window of opportunity'

With fears of a pandemic on the rise after the virus emerged in China late last year, the World Health Organization urged countries to stock up on critical care ventilators to treat patients with severe symptoms.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a "window of opportunity" remained to contain the outbreak, noting that "more than 130 countries have not detected any cases yet."

Globally, the virus has infected nearly 90,000 people in more than 60 nations.

Italy, Europe's worst-affected country with around 1,700 infections, said Monday its deaths from the virus had jumped 18 to 52.

The outbreak has raised fears for the world economy, with the OECD slashing its global growth forecast by half a percentage point to 2.4 percent, the worst performance since the 2008 financial crisis.

But strength on Wall Street -- which rebounded from sharp losses last week to post gains of more than five percent Monday -- helped European markets emerge from the red after governments and central banks said they would step in if needed to soften the blow.

China's economy has halted with large swathes of the country under quarantine or subject to strict travel restrictions.

Other countries have enacted their own containment measures including travel restrictions, locking down towns and suspending major events.

The Louvre -- the world's most visited museum -- was closed on Sunday and Monday after staff refused to work while the UN headquarters in Geneva said it was closing to visitors.

In Italy, tourist hotpots including the Duomo in Milan reopened to visitors but access was limited to avoid overcrowding in a bid to contain the virus.

Elsewhere in Europe, Sweden barred flights from Iran while France, Germany and Britain said they would send aid to the Middle Eastern nation.
Iran reported 12 more deaths on Monday, raising the country's toll to 66, the second biggest after China's, while its overall number of cases rose to 1,501.

South Korea sect

China reported 42 more deaths on Monday -- all in central Hubei province, bringing the death toll to 2,912. The pathogen is believed to have originated in a market that sold wild animals in Hubei's capital Wuhan.

Overall, China recorded just 202 new infections however, the lowest daily rise since late January, bringing the nationwide total to over 80,000, as massive quarantine efforts paid off.

The WHO says the virus appears to particularly hit people over the age of 60 and those already weakened by other illnesses. Its mortality rate is between two and five percent.

South Korea, the worst affected outside China, reported nearly 500 new cases on Monday, raising its total past 4,000.

Four more people died there, taking the toll to 22.

Half of South Korea's cases are linked to a sect whose leader Lee Man-hee apologized Monday for the spread of the disease.

Seoul's city government has asked prosecutors to press murder charges against him for failing to cooperate in efforts to contain the virus. (AFP)