Coronavirus: more countries will adopt Italy’s measures, says Austrian leader

Austria’s chancellor has said other European countries will be forced to adopt containment measures as drastic as Italy’s, after Rome placed a quarter of the population in lockdown in an effort to halt the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

As the head of the World Health Organization praised Italy’s “genuine sacrifices”, Sebastian Kurz said the situation in Austria, which has reported 99 Covid-19 cases, was under control and the measures it had adopted were appropriate for the time being.

He said EU leaders and health ministers were in close contact over their countries’ handling of the epidemic, which according to the Johns Hopkins tracker has so far infected more than 107,000 people worldwide and claimed more 3,650 lives.

Q&A

How can I protect myself from the coronavirus outbreak?

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 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 it is used correctly.

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“It will be important to decide which steps to take when,” Kurz said. “You can close schools for one or two weeks and this is urgently necessary in Italy. It will happen in other European countries. The decisive question is when to do it.”

The difficulty will be in balancing the need to head off a peak in infections that could paralyse public health systems against excessively economic damage, he said. “You have to consider carefully when to adopt these measures, because a national economy cannot handle this over too long a period,” he added.

Speaking to French radio, Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner for the single market, said European countries were constantly updating each other on the virus’s advance. “Each is acting according to the latest available data in their countries,” he said.

“The virus has spread faster in some places than in others, so naturally the measures in each differ,” Breton said. “They will continue to evolve as appropriate.” He said Brussels was working on an “ecosystem that will support those small and mid-sized companies that are already experiencing problems.”

Quick guide

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

What is Covid-19 – the illness that started in Wuhan?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

Have there been other coronaviruses?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

What are the symptoms caused by the new coronavirus?

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

UK Chief Medical Officers are advising anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last 14 days and who is experiencing a cough or fever or shortness of breath to stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2% at the centre of the outbreak, Hubei province, and less than that elsewhere. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.

Is the outbreak a pandemic?

A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed outside China, but by no means in all 195 countries on the WHO’s list. It is also not spreading within those countries at the moment, except in a very few cases. By far the majority of cases are travellers who picked up the virus in China.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people, and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact. Generally, the coronavirus appears to be hitting older people hardest, with few cases in children.

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The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, tweeted his appreciation for Rome’s efforts after the government published a decree barring people from entering or leaving vast areas of northern Italy without good reason until 3 April.

The quarantine zones are home to about 16 million people and include the regions around Venice and the financial capital, Milan. Cinemas, theatres and museums will be closed nationwide and leave has been cancelled for health workers.

The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said the country was facing “a national emergency”. Italy had chosen “to take the line of truth and transparency and now we’re moving with lucidity and courage, with firmness and determination,” he said.

Ghebreysesus said the government and people of Italy were “are taking bold, courageous steps aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus and protecting their country and the world. They are making genuine sacrifices. WHO stands in solidarity with Italy and is here to continue supporting you.”

The lockdown allows people – including tourists – who were in the affected areas temporarily to return home, and Italy’s borders with Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia remained open. Trains, and flights from Milan and Venice airports, were functioning normally, despite some calls for the country to ban foreign travel.

Pope Francis expressed solidarity with the victims of the virus in a prayer and message livestreamed from the Vatican. Elsewhere in Europe, France confirmed 949 cases and 16 deaths, with 45 people in intensive care. Schools and kindergartens are closed in two départements, Haut-Rhin and Oise.

Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said organisers had been too reluctant to act but all public events with more than 1,000 participants should be called off. “Given how fast things are developing, that should change quickly,” he said. Bulgaria reported its first case on Sunday.

Spain confirmed 589 cases – a rise of 159 from Saturday – and 17 deaths. Residents in parts of the small town of Haro in the northern Spanish region of La Rioja remain in lockdown following the discovery that 39 people had contracted the virus after attending a funeral in the Basque country.

Belgium said it had confirmed 200 cases, including a second at the the European council in Brussels. Nearly 50 of the 3,000 staff at the organisation, which hosts ministerial meetings and EU summits, were told to stay at home. The council said the man had attended a meeting of EU ambassadors on March 2.

In Iran, 49 new deaths were reported on Sunday, the country’s highest toll for a single 24-hour period. The figure brings the total of those killed by the virus in Iran, which has recorded 6,566 confirmed cases, to 194, one of the highest outside China.

In the US, the epidemic has spread to 30 states, killing at least 19 people. A man in his 50s tested positive for the virus in Washington, the first confirmed case in the capital, and another person who travelled through the city has also tested positive in Maryland. New York announced a state of emergency.

Two people who tested positive have died in Florida, marking the first deaths on the US east coast attributed to the outbreak. Donald Trump said he was not concerned at about the coronavirus getting closer to the White House.

More than passengers on the US cruise ship Grand Princess have tested positive and the 3,533 passengers on board the vessel, which is to be allowed to dock in Oakland, California, on Monday, have been confined to their cabins. Another cruise ship carrying 2,000 people, the Costa Fortuna, was turned away by Malaysia and Thailand.

Colombia and Cost Rica reported their first cases of the virus over the weekend and a 64-year-old man died in Argentina, marking the first coronavirus fatality in Latin America.

The number of infections in South Korea passed 7,000, the highest in the world outside China. In China itself, however, only 44 new cases were reported on Sunday, the lowest in weeks, nearly all of them in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak and the remainder imported from abroad, including Italy and Spain.

At least 10 people were killed in the collapse of hotel in Quanzhou, in eastern China, that was being used to isolate people who had arrived from other parts of the country, authorities said on Sunday.

The WHO said the efforts of China and other countries were “demonstrating that spread of the virus can be slowed”.

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