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Spike in Covid-19 cases in Italy, South Korea, Iran

Seoul 

INTERNATIONAL concern about the spread of the Covid-19 disease outside China grew on Sunday with sharp rises in infections in three countries - South Korea, Italy and Iran.

South Korea went on high alert after the number of infections surged over 600 with six deaths. Italy saw a rise to 132 cases and imposed stringent curbs in parts of the country to try to stop the spread. Iran has reported 43 cases, with eight deaths.

In China, which has seen the vast majority of cases, the authorities reported 648 new infections - higher than a day earlier - but only 18 were outside of Hubei province, the lowest number outside the epicentre since the authorities began publishing data a month ago and locked down large parts of the country.

President Xi Jinping said that while measures to deal with the virus had been effective, the battle to contain it was still at a crucial stage.

State run television urged people to avoid complacency, drawing attention to people gathering in public areas and tourist spots without wearing masks.

The virus has killed 2,442 people in China, which has reported 76,936 cases, and has slammed the brakes on the world's second largest economy. It has spread to some 26 other countries and territories, with a death toll of around two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

It has been fatal in 2 per cent of reported cases, with the elderly and ill the most vulnerable, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which said on Saturday that it was worried by the detection of infections without a clear link to China.

South Korea's president said the government had raised the disease alert to the highest level, allowing the authorities to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated "special care zones" on Friday.

Health officials reported 169 new infections, bringing the total to 602, having doubled from Friday to Saturday.

More than half the new cases are linked to a church in the south-eastern city of Daegu after a 61-year-old woman known as "Patient 31" who attended services there tested positive for the virus last week. The woman had no recent record of overseas travel.

The raised alert level also enables the government to forcibly prevent public activities and order the temporary closure of schools, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency said, although the government gave no immediate details on what steps could be taken.

Concern about the reach and rapid spread of the Covid-19 infection also grew in Europe and the Middle East.

In Italy, schools and universities were closed and some soccer matches postponed in the affected northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, the country's industrial heartland.

Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto with a combined population of some 50,000 have effectively been placed under quarantine, with locals urged to stay home and special permission needed to enter or leave the designated areas.

Iran reported a total of 43 infections, with eight deaths - all since Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey imposed travel and immigration restrictions on Iran, while Oman on Sunday urged its citizens to steer clear of countries with high infection rates and said arrivals from those nations would be quarantined.

In Japan, where the government is facing growing questions about whether it is doing enough to counter the virus, the authorities had confirmed 773 cases by early Sunday evening, most of them from a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed government agencies to urgently prepare medical provisions and draft a comprehensive plan to curb the spread.

A third passenger from the virus-infected Diamond Princess cruise ship, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday, the authorities said. REUTERS

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