The coronavirus death toll climbed to seven in Italy on Monday and several Middle East countries were dealing with their first infections, sending markets into a tailspin over fears of a global pandemic even as China eased curbs with no new cases reported in Beijing and other cities.
While health experts have expected limited outbreaks beyond China, the rapid acceleration of cases in Italy going from three on Friday to 220 on Monday is concerning, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement.
Just as China put cities on lockdown, Italian authorities sealed off the worst-affected towns, closed schools and halted the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases.
Markets are nervous that Europe could experience disruptions similar to China, where air traffic has been disrupted and global supply chains rattled for everything from medicine to cars to smartphones.
But China’s actions, especially in Wuhan – the epicentre of the outbreak – probably prevented hundreds of thousands of cases, said the head of the WHO delegation in China, Bruce Aylward, urging the rest of the world to learn the lesson of acting fast.
“They’re at a point now where the number of cured people coming out of hospitals each day is much more than the sick going in,” he said.
The surge of cases outside mainland China triggered sharp falls in global markets as investors fled to safe havens. European equities markets suffered their biggest slump since mid-2016, gold soared to a seven-year high and oil tumbled 4%.
The Dow Jones Industrials and S&P 500 posted their biggest one-day percentage drops in over two years and Nasdaq had one of its worst days since December 2018. All three indexes closed down more than 3% after notching record highs last week on optimism the coronavirus would not seriously hurt global economies.
Wall Street’s fear gauge, the CBOE Volatility Index , jumped to a one-year high.
People wearing face masks walk along a street, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the word “pandemic” did yet not fit the facts.
“We must focus on containment while preparing for a potential pandemic,” he told reporters in Geneva, adding that the world was not witnessing an uncontained spread or large-scale deaths.
The epidemic in China peaked between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and has been declining since, the WHO said.
Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program, told reporters it was still possible to contain the virus and that it might appear each year like the flu.