LONDON - Parts of Northern Italy are on lockdown following an outbreak of the Coronavirus or Covid-19 as it’s known, with at least seven deaths in the region. The sudden outbreaks in recent days, from South Korea to Iran to Italy, have raised fears that the virus - which originated in China - will turn into a global pandemic. Global cases of the virus have passed 80,000. Meanwhile a new report warns that southeast Asian and sub-Saharan African economies could be badly hit, even if there are no outbreaks of the disease there.

Northern Italy is the epicentre of Europe’s Coronavirus outbreak. In the regions of Lombardy and Veneto several small towns have been put on lockdown – and 50,000 people have been told to stay at home. Supermarket shelves are emptying of basic goods, even in big cities like Milan.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urged citizens to heed government advice.

Conte said, “This discomfort and sacrifice, which for now is intended for 14 days, I hope will prove to be effective to contain the spread of the virus.”

But with new cases reported in other Italian regions – and in Spain and Switzerland – health authorities are struggling to contain the virus. Virologist Doctor Sterghios Moschos of Britain’s University of Northumbria says it's vital people do all they can do to stop its spread.

“The containment procedure is there to effectively dampen down the intensity of transmission and stretch it out to prevent an overload in healthcare settings,” Moschos said.

Iran is one of the worst-affected nations outside China, with hundreds of infections and more than a dozen confirmed deaths. South Korea is also badly hit and the U.S. government has advised against all non-essential travel there. In China – where the virus first appeared in late December - infections have topped 77,000, with more than 2,500 deaths.

“The window of opportunity for stopping this disease from becoming a pandemic is narrowing very fast. We, the entire (medical) community at the moment is anticipating this will eventually develop into a pandemic. However I have to point out that in the past we’ve had similar fears and what has happened is that viruses just died down, die away,” Moschos said.

The global economic cost could hit $360 billion, according to a report from the Overseas Development Institute or ODI, which warns sub-Saharan Africa stands to lose $4 billion in export revenue. Oil and copper prices are sharply down – and big exporters to China, such as Angola, are suffering. The ODI says Sri Lanka, Vietnam and the Philippines will be worst hit. 

Sherilynn Raga is co-author of the report says, “Everyone’s looking back at the SARS impact in 2003. But of course if we look back, China is now four times bigger than during the time of the SARS outbreak and it’s more connected to the world now through global value chains, and the manufacturing sector.”

Scientists are racing to produce a vaccine for the virus – with the first human trial scheduled for April.  By then the Covid-19 outbreak could be a full pandemic – with serious consequences for national health systems and the global economy.

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