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WHO warns nations ‘simply not ready’ to contain coronavirus epidemic

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The new coronavirus epidemic swelled on Wednesday with cases in South Korea surging past 1,000 after deaths soared in Iran and infections appeared in previously untouched countries, prompting dire warnings that the world was not ready to contain it.

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The virus has rapidly spread in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, even as the number of fresh cases and deaths decline at the disease epicentre in China.

Towns and cities have been sealed off in an attempt to stop the contagion, while hotels in the Canary Islands and Austria were locked down on Tuesday because of suspected cases.

In Iran, which has reported 15 deaths out of nearly 100 infections, even the country's deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi said he had contracted the virus.

At the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Bruce Aylward, who headed an international expert mission to China, hailed the drastic quarantine and containment measures taken by the country.

But he told reporters that other nations were "simply not ready" to contain the outbreak.

"You have to be ready to manage this at a larger scale… and it has to be done fast," Aylward said.

The virus has killed 2,715 people and infected over 78,000 in China. There were 52 more deaths reported on Wednesday — the lowest in three weeks — with no fatalities outside the epicentre in central Hubei province.

The National Health Commission also reported a drop in new infections to 406, with only five outside Hubei — a figure that will boost confidence that the rest of the country is containing the epidemic.

In the rest of the world, there have been more than 40 deaths and 2,700 cases.

The disease has now reached dozens of countries, with Austria, Croatia and Switzerland the latest to declare cases.

The epidemic's disruption has also grown, with stock markets tumbling around the world, restrictions imposed on travellers and sporting events cancelled.

The WHO has called for countries to "prepare for a potential pandemic" — a term used to describe an epidemic that spreads throughout the world.

Poor countries are particularly at risk, the WHO has warned.

South Korea surge

South Korea reported 169 new infections on Wednesday, raising its total tally to 1,146 — by far the largest outside China — while an 11th person died.

A 23-year-old US soldier stationed at Camp Carroll in Daegu was also infected. Some 28,500 American troops are deployed in South Korea.

The vast majority — 90 percent — of the new infections were in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city and the epicentre of the outbreak, and the neighbouring province of North Gyeongsang.

The streets of Daegu — which has a population of 2.5 million — have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues at the few shops with masks for sale.

Authorities urged the public to exercise extra caution, advising citizens to stay home if they have a fever or respiratory symptoms.

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