South Korea to Launch Mass Coronavirus Testing, US Pledges $1 Billion for Vaccine

February 25, 2020 Updated: February 25, 2020
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South Korea aims to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the center of a surge in coronavirus cases, as countries stepped up efforts to stop a pandemic of the virus that emerged in China and is now spreading in Europe and the Middle East.

Fast-spreading outbreaks in Iran, Italy, and South Korea, and first cases in several Middle East countries, have fed worries of a pandemic, or worldwide spread of the virus.

“We are close to a pandemic, but there is still hope the epidemics in Iran, Italy, South Korea, etc. can be controlled,” said Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.

South Korea has the most virus cases outside China and reported its tenth death and 144 new cases, for a total of 977. President Moon Jae-in said the situation was “very grave.”

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Buses are seen at a closed bus terminal in Wuhan, the epicenter of the Novel Coronavirus outbreak, Hubei province, China, on Feb. 24, 2020. (Stringer/Reuters)

In Europe, Italy has become a new front line, with 220 cases reported on Monday, up from just three on Friday. The death toll in Italy is seven.

Global stock markets stabilized on Tuesday after a wave of early selling petered out and Wall Street futures managed a solid bounce after a sharp selloff the previous day on fears about the spreading coronavirus.

“If travel restrictions and supply chain disruptions spread, the impact on global growth could be more widespread and longer lasting,” said Jonas Goltermann, senior economist at research consultancy Capital Economics in London.

Public Anxiety

About 68 percent of South Korea’s cases are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where the outbreak is believed to have begun with a 61-year-old woman. It is not known how she became infected.

The church said it would provide authorities the names of all its members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215,000 people. The government would test them all as soon as possible, the prime minister’s office said.

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A South Korean policeman wearing a mask to prevent the coronavirus (COVID-19) walks along the street in Seoul on Feb. 22, 2020. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

“It is essential to test all of the church members,” it said in a statement. Authorities said they were testing up to 13,000 people a day.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries have said they may cut back joint training due to the virus, in one of the first concrete signs of its fallout on global U.S. military activities.

The disclosure came during a visit to the Pentagon on Monday by South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, who said 13 South Korean troops had the virus.

The U.S. military said a woman who tested positive for the virus had visited one of its bases in the hard-hit city of Daegu. It was the first infection connected to U.S. Forces Korea, which has about 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.

The U.S. military urged troops to “use extreme caution” off base, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans should avoid non-essential travel to South Korea.

Iran Isolation

Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about three dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, and Oman reported their first new coronavirus cases, all in people who had been to Iran where the toll was 14 dead, media said, and 61 infected.

The outbreak threatens to isolate Iran further. The United Arab Emirates, which has 13 virus cases, suspended all flights with Iran for at least a week, state media said.

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Women wear masks and gloves to help guard against the coronavirus in downtown Tehran, Iran, on Feb. 23, 2020. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo)

Iraq extended an entry ban on travelers from China and Iran to those from five other countries over virus fears, its health ministry said.

In Japan, which has reported four deaths and 850 cases mostly linked to a cruise ship, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said it was too early to talk about canceling the Tokyo Olympics due to start on July 24.

The United States pledged $2.5 billion to fight the disease, with more than $1 billion going toward developing a vaccine, with other funds earmarked for therapeutics and the stockpiling of personal protective equipment such as masks.

By Hyonhee Shin and Ryan Woo