WASHINGTON/BEIJING – The world has entered uncharted territory in its battle against the deadly coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned, as new infections dropped dramatically in China on Tuesday but surged abroad with the U.S. death toll rising to six.
Globally, the virus has killed more than 3,100 people and infected over 90,000 even as a clear shift in the crisis emerges, with nine times as many cases now recorded outside China as inside, according to the U.N. health agency.
The organization says the virus appears particularly problematic for people over the age of 60 and those already weakened by other illnesses. Its mortality rate is between two and 5 percent — higher than the seasonal flu.
China has imposed draconian quarantines and travel restrictions, keeping large swathes of the population indoors for weeks, in a strategy that appears to have paid off in the fall in new cases this month.
While Italy has locked down towns, other countries have stopped short of enacting mass quarantines and instead have discouraged large gatherings, delayed sporting events and banned arrivals from virus-hit nations.
South Korea, Iran and Italy have emerged as major spawning grounds for the novel virus, which reached wider attention after an outbreak at a market that sold wild animals in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
“We are in uncharted territory,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.
“We have never before seen a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission, but which can also be contained with the right measures.”
Community transmission means infections within a population without contact from another virus-hit area.
The United States is now facing a potential epidemic after six people died in the northwestern 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 U.S. 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 U.S. is viewed as vulnerable to an epidemic because of glaring disparities in its health care system, including nearly 28 million people without coverage.
China reported 125 new cases on Tuesday, its lowest daily increase in six weeks, with all but 11 new infections in Wuhan’s central Hubei province.
The nationwide death toll rose to 2,943 with 31 more deaths, all in Hubei.
Chinese officials have touted progress in the battle against the epidemic, which has taken a toll on the world’s second largest economy and threatened to cut into global growth.
Global markets tanked last week but rebounded on Monday after governments and central banks said they would step in if needed to soften the blow.
Finance ministers and central bank chiefs from G7 countries will hold talks on the issue on Tuesday.
U.N. medical experts arrived in Iran on Monday to help it tackle the world’s second deadliest outbreak, with 66 fatalities and more than 1,500 infections.
China sent experts to Iran on Saturday while Germany, France and the U.K. pledged emergency medical supplies including testing equipment, body suits and gloves.
In Italy, tourist hot spots including the Duomo in Milan reopened to visitors but access was limited to avoid overcrowding in a bid to contain the virus.
Italy, Europe’s worst-affected country with around 1,700 infections, said Monday its deaths from the virus had jumped by 18 to a new total of 52.
South Korea has the most infections outside China, with more than 4,000 cases and 26 deaths.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.