Modelling in Australia has predicted a worst-case scenario where millions inside the country could become infected with Covid-19, as China’s death toll passed 3,000.
The developments came as the coronavirus continues to spread around the world. South Korea’s number of confirmed cases neared 6,000 on Thursday and Italy ordered the closure of all schools after the virus spread to all but one of its 20 regions, killing 107 people. The UK has been warned an epidemic is likely.
A further 31 virus deaths in China took the number of fatalities beyond 3,000 on Wednesday. All of the deaths were in Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak, and authorities confirmed 139 new cases – a rise on the previous day’s total.
In the US, California declared a state of emergency over its 53 confirmed cases, and a cruise ship linked to the state’s first virus death was being held off the coast of San Francisco.
On Thursday Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, told reporters the federal government – which last week enacted its pandemic preparation plan – was looking at scenarios “from the most benign through to some millions of people being infected over a period of several weeks”.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said they didn’t want to create unnecessary anxiety in the community by being speculative, but they would continue to be “candid and up front”.
Brad Hazzard, health minister for Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, said earlier that there had been an “evolution” in the spread of the virus,and containment was now “an unlikely outcome”.
“So we need to work constructively with the community to continue our effort to emphasise to the community that [controlling the virus] is a partnership,” Hazzard said.
“Our community has to be doing everything they can do to support us in defeating what has really become a war in defeating this coronavirus.”
There are 53 confirmed cases in Australia, including a baby. Most of those infected had arrived from overseas having already contracted the disease. Two have died. The most recent death was an elderly woman who contracted the virus from an employee at the aged care home where she lived.
One person was also diagnosed in the Northern Territory, home to hundreds of remote Indigenous communities which bore the brunt of the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak in 2009.
There have also been widely reported cases of panic buying of food and essentials.
Australia also joined at least 35 other countries in introducing travel restrictions on people coming from South Korea, which has seen the largest outbreak outside of China.
The number of infections in South Korea was nearing 6,000, with 34 deaths. On Thursday the government declared a third “special care zone” over Gyeongsan, a city of about 275,000 people 250km (150 miles) south-east of Seoul, after a sudden rise in cases there, including at a nursing home.
The move means Gyeongsan will join the nearby city of Daegu and Cheongdo county in receiving extra medical resources and staff. The government has also advised people not to travel to the three locations.
About 60% of all cases in South Korea have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu.
“Everyday is sad and tough like a war. But our citizens are showing wisdom and courage,” the mayor of Daegu, Kwon Young-jin, told reporters on Thursday.
The outbreak is placing strain on the city’s health infrastructure, with hospitals struggling to accommodate new patients. Daegu city officials said 2,117 people were waiting for hospital rooms, while the health ministry said dozens of newly qualified nurses were due to start work in the city on Thursday.
The number of cases in Japan rose to 1,036 on Thursday, according to local governments and the health ministry. The total includes 706 passengers and crew from Diamond Princess cruise ship and 14 people who were repatriated from Wuhan, where the outbreak started, last month.
The Olympics minister, Seiko Hashimoto, said Japan was preparing to host this summer’s Olympics as planned. Hashimoto, who this week suggested that the Games could be postponed, told a parliamentary committee: “Cancellation or delay of the Games would be unacceptable for the athletes. We must ensure we have an environment in which athletes can focus and feel at ease.”
In Germany on Wednesday, the health minister, Jens Spahn, said the coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic – defined as an epidemic that spreads throughout the world through local transmission.
“What’s clear is that we have not yet reached the peak of the outbreak,” Jens Spahn told German lawmakers.
In Hong Kong a “weak positive” test result in a pet Pomeranian dog was “unanimously” thought by involved health experts to a case of human-to-animal transmission. Pet owners were warned to avoid kissing their pets, but also not to panic, and definitely not to abandon them.
By Helen Davidson