Public health officials warned on Wednesday that the spread of the novel coronavirus is moving closer to meeting the definition of a global pandemic as the number of cases outside mainland China continues to increase, including in South Korea where a U.S. soldier has tested the virus positively.
Brazil today announced its first case of coronavirus, marking the first time South America has identified the virus. Now the disease has spread to six of the seven continents worldwide. It has still not reached Antarctica.
Iran and Italy are also struggling with major border outbreaks that have turned deadly, and a senior U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official warned that the U.S. could see the virus spread within its borders.
“It’s not so much a question of whether this will happen anymore, but more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will get a serious illness,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC.
South Korea is currently experiencing the largest outbreak outside mainland China, with over 1,200 people infected — including the first US soldier — and at least 12 dead. At least 139 cases and 19 fatalities have been confirmed by Iran’s health ministry.
At least 374 people were infected and 12 killed in Italy, while Algeria, Croatia, mainland Spain, and Switzerland all announced their first confirmed cases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has so far struggled to classify the spread of the coronavirus as a global pandemic, but the outbreak appears to become closer to meeting the definition of one by the global health body.
Messonnier of the CDC said on Tuesday that the situation met two of the criteria for a pandemic: “the fact that this virus caused disease — including disease that resulted in death — and persistent person-to-person spread.” “As community spread is detected in more and more countries, the world is moving closer to meeting the third criteria: the spread of the new virus worldwide,” she said.
The virus has infected more than 2,760 people worldwide to date, of whom 2,715 are in mainland China. China’s National Health Commission announced that on Tuesday, 406 confirmed cases were found— all but five in the hard-hit Hubei province— and the virus killed 52 people. The total number of people infected in mainland China now stands at 78,064, bringing the total global population to 80,970.
The situation has rattled global markets and caused worry about the virus’s long-term economic impact.
Investors and economists were particularly concerned about how the continued shutdown of factories in China could affect global supply chains, but the new outbreaks in two major economies — Italy and South Korea — rattled markets and shattered hopes for a rapid recovery, sparking the global stock rout this week.
South Korean outbreak is spreading to the Army
South Korean authorities are trying to contain an outbreak that has grown from just 51 people who were infected last week to at least 1,260 as of Wednesday. The outbreak began in Daegu’s southern city and was centered around the religious group of Shincheonji, but the virus now seems to have spread beyond practitioners.
Twenty South Korean military members have been confirmed infected, and the country’s defense ministry has placed substantial restrictions on soldiers leaving their bases because of fears surrounding the virus. It was announced on Wednesday that, according to U.S. Forces Korea statement, a U.S. service member stationed in South Korea has been testing positively for the virus.
The soldier stationed at Camp Carroll, about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Daegu City, is the first U.S. service member to test the novel coronavirus positively.
“The patient, a 23-year-old male, is currently in self-quarantine at his out – of-base residence. He visited Camp Walker on February 24 and Camp Carroll on February 21-25. KCDC and USFK health professionals are actively conducting contact tracing to determine if any others may have been exposed,” the statement said.
According to three US officials, the spread of the virus has also prompted South Korea and the United States to scale back joint military drills.
According to officials, the three officials said this would be the first major impact coronavirus has on US military readiness. Without the full exercise, in the event of a crisis, the US could lose ground in being able to conduct future operations in a coordinated and highly synchronized way with South Korea against North Korea, one of the officials said.