Cases in South Korea of the new coronavirus exceeded 1,000 Wednesday, reinforcing concerns the deadly outbreak that began in central China is taking hold on a more global scale.
The country confirmed 169 more coronavirus infections, bringing its total number of cases to 1,146. A week ago, South Korea had only 51 cases of the virus, which has killed more than 2,700 people in China and other parts of the world.
South Korea is emerging as a second coronavirus hot spot in Asia, as the outbreak in China — where more than 78,000 people have been sickened — starts to show signs of plateauing. About two dozen countries including Singapore have levied restrictions on travelers from South Korea, while flights and tour-group trips to the nation are being canceled.
The lack of strong containment measures from the South Korean government in the city of Daegu, where most of the cases are emerging, is sparking questions over whether the virus will continue to spread through the country. The outbreak there comes as cases also spike elsewhere, with a rising infections tally in Italy and significant death toll in Iran fueling anxiety over the global spread.
Unlike China, which sealed off the Hubei province of 60 million on Jan. 23 to contain the virus’ spread, South Korea’s government has declined to take draconian containment measures. Although the streets are quieter in Daegu, the country’s fourth-largest city, shops and restaurants remain mostly open and there are no restrictions over people traveling outside the city’s limits.There is rising concern that the government’s moderate approach has allowed the highly infectious pathogen to spread through the country and that new cases of infection will accelerate.
The deadly outbreak has undercut hopes of an economic recovery, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has hinted at an extra budget to help offset the damage and raising the country’s infectious disease alert to the highest level. Moon’s assurances earlier this month that South Korea would terminate the disease “before long,” has been undercut by its continued spread and his government, facing elections in April, is coming under pressure to contain the epidemic.
A U.S. soldier stationed at a military base near Daegu has tested positive for the coronavirus, the first time a U.S. service member has been infected, said a Wednesday statement from the United States Forces Command.
More than half of South Korea’s cases are linked to an obscure religious sect called Shincheonji, which translates to “new heaven and land.”
Hundreds of sect members have been infected, and appeared to have spread it to patients in a hospital near Daegu after a funeral for the brother of the sect’s leaders was held there earlier this month.
The sect has branches in Wuhan, the Chinese city in Hubei province where the virus originated. Although there is no evidence that the virus was brought to South Korea by sect members returning from Wuhan, the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that it is examining the ties between branches of the sect in South Korea and in areas of China including Hubei province.
Moon has also asked health authorities to conduct an in-depth investigation into the funeral.
“We don’t think the difficulties that Daegu is going through is a just a Daegu problem,” he said during a visit to the city on Tuesday. “We think it is a nationwide problem.”