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South Korea to launch mass coronavirus testing

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South Korean health officials spraying disinfectant in front of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu.

[SEOUL] South Korea aims to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the centre 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.

About 60 per cent 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 leader of the church said it would provide authorities with the names of all its members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215,000 people.

The government would conduct coronavirus tests on all of them "as soon as possible", the prime minister's office said in a statement.

"It is essential to test all of the church members in order to contain the spread of the virus and relieve public anxiety," the office said.

South Korea has the most virus cases in Asia outside China and reported its ninth death and 60 new cases, for a total of 893.

More than 80,000 people have been infected in China since the outbreak began, apparently in an illegal wildlife market in the central city of Wuhan late last year.

China's death toll was 2,663 as of the end of Monday, up by 71 from the previous day. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the epidemic in China peaked between Jan 23 and Feb 2 and has been declining since.

The world's second biggest economy is set for a slowdown with the affects of the outbreak rippling far beyond its borders.

"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.

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.

Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Afghanistan and Iraq reported their first new coronavirus cases, all in people who had been to Iran where the toll was 14 dead and 61 infected. Most of the Iran infections were in the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

Dubai airport said flights to Iran, apart from Tehran, had been suspended.

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

REUTERS