Saudia Arabia on Thursday banned pilgrims from visiting Islam’s holiest sites to try to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus as the number of deaths soared in neighbouring Iran and new cases were reported in Europe.
China is no longer the only breeding ground for COVID-19 as countries worry about possible contagion from other hotbeds of infection, including Iran, South Korea and Italy.
There are now more daily cases being recorded outside China than inside the country, where the virus first emerged in December, according to the World Health Organization.
More than 2,700 people have died in China and some 78,000 have been infected. The outbreak has spread to dozens of other countries, where there have been more than 50 deaths and 3,600 cases, raising fears of a pandemic.
Jitters over the epidemic have rocked global markets, while sports matches and festivals across Europe have been cancelled.
The US and South Korea on Thursday postponed forthcoming joint military exercises because of the outbreak, while Japan’s prime minister called for schools to close nationwide for several weeks.
President Emmanuel Macron said France, the world’s most visited country, was preparing for a jump in coronavirus cases.
“We are facing a crisis, an epidemic that is coming,” he said during a visit to a hospital in Paris where the first French person carrying the virus died Tuesday.
But President Donald Trump has played down fears of a major outbreak in the United States, the world’s largest economy.
“I think that there’s a chance that it could get worse, a chance it could get fairly substantially worse, but nothing’s inevitable,” Trump told reporters Wednesday.
His comments contradicted US health officials who urged Americans to be ready to cancel mass gatherings and work from home. There are 60 cases in the US so far.
The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said it had detected the first case of unknown origin in the country, signalling that the virus may be spreading within communities.
With the virus spreading in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia suspended visas for visits to Islam’s holiest sites for the “umrah” pilgrimage, an unprecedented move, raising questions over the hajj which starts in July.
The kingdom — which hosts millions of pilgrims every year — said it was also suspending visas for tourists visiting from countries where the new virus is a “danger”.
In neighbouring Iran, the health ministry reported seven new deaths over the past 24 hours, taking the overall toll to 26, the highest outside China.
Tehran imposed domestic travel restrictions for confirmed or suspected cases and slapped curbs on visits to major Muslim pilgrimage sites, while Iran’s neighbours have shut their borders.
Several governments have also advised against travel to Italy — which has 400 cases and 12 deaths, and South South Korea, which has almost 1,600 cases, the highest number outside China.