Third person dies in coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy as 11 towns placed in lockdown

Agence France-Presse

A third person infected with the coronavirus has died in Italy, a regional official said on Sunday, as the government struggles to contain an outbreak of the illness in the north of the country with more than 130 cases reported since Friday.

Giulio Gallera, Lombardy regional councillor, told reporters the victim was an elderly woman from the town of Crema, east of Milan, who was also suffering from cancer. 

Italy became the first country in Europe to announce a death from coronavirus on Friday, when a 78-year-old man died in the region of Veneto.

A 77-year-old woman died in Lombardy on Saturday, prompting new security measures by Italy's government to contain the spread of infection.

Eleven towns - 10 in Lombardy and one in Veneto - are now under lockdown, with residents prohibited from leaving.

Police on guard at the hospital near Padova where tests for the coronavirus are performed on the population in Veneto region, northern Italy - NICOLA FOSSELLA/EPA-EFE/REX

Italian officials cancelled the last two days of the Venice Carnival. 

Luca Zaia, the head of the Veneto region, said events scheduled for Sunday in the lagoon city would continue as planned, "but as of this evening there will be a ban on the Venice Carnival as well as on all events, sporting as well, until March 1 inclusive." Earlier he confirmed the first two cases of coronavirus in the city. 

Earlier in the day, the women's Six Nations rugby match between Italy and Scotland was cancelled. The match had been scheduled to take place in Legnano, north of Milan in the Lombardy region. Three men's Serie A football matches were also called off, including Inter Milan's hosting of Sampdoria.

Authorities say 113 cases of the disease have been confirmed in the northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy.

Drastic containment steps taken worldwide

The move came as South Korea went on high alert on Sunday following a sharp jump in coronavirus cases, and Iran took its own drastic containment steps as an epidemic that has killed nearly 2,500 people in China continued a relentless global expansion.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also warned that Africa's poor health systems left it vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease, which spilled out of China to more than 25 countries.

South Korea is raising the nation's alert to its "highest" level, President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday after the number of infections nearly tripled over the weekend to 556.

Led by an outbreak cluster in a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu, South Korea now has the most infections outside of China apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan, which has seen more than 600.

"The next few days will be crucial," Mr Moon said following a government meeting on the virus.

"The government will raise the alert level to the highest level according to experts' recommendations."

Mr Moon did not specify what those measures may include.

Coronavirus live spread map - animated

South Korea reported 123 new cases and two deaths on Sunday, taking the countrywide toll of fatalities to four.

More than 300 cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus sect in Daegu. Some 9,300 Shincheonji members have either been quarantined or asked to stay at home, according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 1,240 have reported symptoms.

China reported another 97 deaths in its daily update on Sunday, taking its total to 2,442, plus 648 new infections. Nearly 80,000 people have been infected worldwide, the vast majority in China.

China's outbreak remains concentrated in the locked-down city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have emanated from a live animal market in December.

The city was locked down exactly one month ago as of Sunday, followed by surrounding areas.

China's infection rate has slowed from early in the epidemic, but Chinese flip-flopping over counting methods has sowed confusion over its data.

There also was growing concern over the difficulty of detecting the virus.

Japan on Sunday confirmed that a woman who tested negative and disembarked from the Diamond Princess later tested positive. Similar instances have been reported elsewhere.

Japan has been criticised over its handling of the cruise ship. Many passengers were allowed to disembark without being properly tested or despite having close contact with infected people.

More than 1,000 crew remain on board and are expected to serve a 14-day quarantine.

Passengers on the deck of the Diamond Princess wave to other passengers, believed to be British citizens, as they leave the coronavirus-hit cruise ship Diamond Princess - Reuters

Iran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centres across 14 provinces from Sunday following five deaths in the Islamic Republic - the most outside East Asia and the first in the Middle East.

Iran's outbreak surfaced Wednesday and quickly grew to 28 confirmed infections.

"The concern is ... that we have seen ... a very rapid increase (in Iran) in a matter of a few days," said Sylvie Briand, director of the WHO's global infectious hazard preparedness department.

Iraq on Thursday clamped down on travel to and from Iran, and flag carrier Kuwait Airways has suspended flights to the country.

Although Egypt is the only African country with a confirmed case, the WHO warned that the continent was vulnerable, urging more African Union cooperation.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said necessary treatment tools such as respiratory support machines were "in short supply in many African countries and that's a cause for concern".

The US State Department said anxiety was being stoked by a coordinated effort by thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts spreading conspiracy theories that the outbreak was a US-orchestrated ploy to damage China, officials said.

Russia's foreign ministry dismissed the allegation as "deliberately false".