Donald Trump has sought to play down the threat from coronavirus despite mounting concerns about unchecked worldwide contagion, as Australia’s prime minister launched an emergency plan and said that the risk of a pandemic was “very much upon us”.
In a press conference in Washington, the US president said the danger to Americans “remains very low” and predicted that the number of cases diagnosed in the country, currently on 15, could fall to zero in a “few days”.
“We have had tremendous success, tremendous success, beyond what people would have thought. At the same time, you do have some outbreaks in some countries – Italy and various countries – are having some difficulties,” he said, in remarks that appeared to be contradicted by officials from his own administration at the same media briefing.
The president also said that stock markets, which have seen substantial falls in recent days because of worries about the global economic impact of the virus, would recover, even attempting to blame the Democratic leadership debate for the losses on Wall Street.
However, the growing threat of a pandemic forced the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, a staunch Trump ally, to enact the country’s emergency response plan, which could include mass vaccinations and the quarantining of large numbers of people in sports stadiums if necessary.
“There is every indication the world will soon enter the pandemic phase of the virus,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “We believe the risk of a pandemic is very much upon us and we as a government need to take steps necessary to prepare for such a pandemic.”
Morrison was speaking after evidence continued to mount from the rest of the world that the number of cases of the virus, which has killed nearly 3,000 people and infected more than 82,000, was rising unchecked, and as countries stepped up their policy responses:
South Korea reported a further 334 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the total to 1,595 – the highest number outside mainland China. Most of the cases were again centred on Daegu where a church at the centre of the country’s outbreak is located.
Iran’s state-run Irna news agency reported that 22 people had died – more than in any country apart from China – and that there were 141 confirmed cases. Experts fear Iran is underreporting the number of cases as infections across the wider Persian Gulf have emerged in recent days linked back to the Islamic republic.
Saudi Arabia temporarily banned foreign pilgrims from entering the country to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
China reported 433 new confirmed cases, and 29 deaths.
Britain is preparing for a surge in cases by launching a mass public information campaign in case of an Italy-sized outbreak.
Denmark recorded its first case, a man returning after a skiing holiday in Italy. Estonia, Pakistan, Georgia, Norway, Macedonia, Greece and Romania were among countries to report their first case of coronavirus in the past 24 hours.
Italian prosecutors launched an investigation into the alleged failure of a hospital in Lombardy to test a man believed to be the first to transmit the infection in the area, as infections surged over 400.
Concerns continued to mount about major events such as the Tokyo Olympics, with the Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe saying athletes would have to put their health first when considering whether it was safe to attend.
Trump, who said he was placing the vice-president, Mike Pence, in charge of coordinating the US response, lavished praise on health officials but they delivered a different message to the president’s.
The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.
The UN agency advises people to:
- Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
- Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
- Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
- Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.
Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.
Dr Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), appeared to reiterate her organisation’s warning on Tuesday that a greater spread in the US was inevitable.
“Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases we have so far. However, we do expect more cases,” said Schuchat.
The US health secretary, Alex Azar, has requested $2.5bn (£1.94bn) in emergency funding from Congress to increase America’s preparedness, but Democrat lawmakers said that was inadequate and have suggested an $8.5bn package.
A warning about the potential danger in the US came from the CDCP shortly after Trump finished speaking. It said that a person in northern California contracted the virus without travelling outside of the US or having contact with a confirmed case.
A blizzard of bleak economic data and commentary also flew in the face of Trump’s more optimistic assessment that “stock markets will recover. The economy is very strong.”
The selloff in shares, which has seen the Dow Jones industrial average on Wall Street lose 7% this week already, continued on Thursday in Asia Pacific with more heavy losses as investors surveyed a cratering of demand as well as disrupted supply chains.
In Tokyo, the Nikkei closed down 2.13%, the Kospi index lost 0.73% and the Hang Seng index in Hong Kong was down 0.7% in afternoon trade.
US stock futures trading in Asia pointed to a 1.5% fall on Wall Street later on Thursday while the FTSE100 is expected to shed 2% at the opening bell, compounding the week’s already heavy losses.
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