Coronavirus containment is looking less likely amid surprise outbreaks in Iran and Italy

Italy is on alert following a Covid-19 outbreak.
Italy is on alert following a Covid-19 outbreak.
Image: AP/Luca Bruno
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Last month the World Health Organization issued a warning that the novel coronavirus epidemic in China could turn into a global health crisis. This week brought evidence that supports its worst fears. Despite massive efforts to contain Covid-19 in the outbreak epicenter Wuhan and surrounding areas, new cases have been reported in seemingly improbable places like Iran, Lebanon, and Italy.

“The window of opportunity is narrowing to contain the outbreak,” warned WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a press briefing in Geneva yesterday. “We have to prepare at the same time for any eventualities because this outbreak could go any direction.”

Women wearing protective masks in Tehran amid Iran’s Covid-19 outbreak.
Women wearing protective masks in Tehran amid Iran’s Covid-19 outbreak.
Image: West Asia News Agency / Nazanin Tabatabaee via Reuters

Indeed, the most recent numbers reflect an increasingly complicated global picture. According to the WHO’s latest situation report (pdf), over 76,700 confirmed cases of infection have been reported worldwide, mostly in China but also now in 26 other countries. Seoul reported an eightfold increase in cases over four days, with 430-plus people in South Korea now infected. Two fatalities in northern Italy and four in Iran added to the grim death toll, now over 2,240 globally.

“Although the total number of cases outside China remains relatively small, we are concerned about the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case,” Tedros said. In effect, transmission is now happening between other countries independent of China and its containment efforts.

coronavirus infection map
Locations with confirmed Covid-19 cases, as of Feb. 21, 2020.
Image: US Centers for Disease Control

Tedros, who served as Ethiopia’s foreign minister prior to his appointment, said his organization’s biggest worry is that Covid-19 may spread in countries with weaker health systems: “If the virus arrives in a country already strained by other diseases—for example Congo, which is still fighting an Ebola outbreak—it will be even harder to control.”

The agency plans to ship 30,000 units of protective equipment, including face masks and thermometer guns, to vulnerable African countries. Meanwhile, African medical supplies factories, like one company Quartz visited in Nairobi, are working overtime to fulfill orders bound for China. “What will happen if corona comes to Kenya?” asked one business owner. “There’s nothing left for us.”

One confirmed case in Egypt shows Covid-19 has reached the continent. But a  new projection published in the Lancet this week shows how the virus can spread rapidly through the region. The study suggests that Egypt, Algeria, and South Africa have the highest risk for importing the fast-spreading virus.