While the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York City holds steady at zero, coronavirus outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, and Iran are raising alarm that the virus is expanding well beyond the borders of China—and may be on the verge of becoming a global pandemic.
Health experts are closely monitoring the situation in three countries which have seen a surge of infections in recent days. As of Monday, South Korea had 833 cases and seven deaths related to the coronavirus. Marking the first major spread of the disease into Europe, Italy is in the midst of battling an outbreak that has resulted in at least 219 confirmed cases and seven deaths. Roughly 50,000 people in 10 towns are being kept in a lockdown.
In Milan, there were reports of a run on face masks, antibacterial gels and other necessities.
“It’s quite a shock for us in northern Italy. My wife and I rushed to do some grocery shopping in fear of being stuck at home," Francesco Sole, a regional secretary of a trade union, told the Guardian. “Empty shelves for basic products such as flour, oil and bottled water were easily noticeable."
The 46-year-old added: “Finding a mask or antibacterial gel has become as challenging as finding water on the moon."
Meanwhile, Iran has reported 12 deaths, the largest number of coronavirus-attributed fatalities outside China.
Following steep drops in Asian and European markets, stocks on Wall Street fell sharply on Monday: both the Dow and the S&P 500 were down by nearly 3 percent during morning trading.
During a press briefing, World Health Organization officials tried to push back on predictions that the virus would soon, or had perhaps already, reached a global pandemic stage.
"Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general. "We do not live in a binary, black-and-white world. It’s not either-or. We must focus on containment, while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic."
According to the WHO's team in China, spread of the disease in the country has been slowing since February 2nd, a sign that officials said showed that containment measures were working. China has to date reported 77,362 cases and 2,618 deaths. Beyond China, there are more than 2,000 coronavirus cases in 28 countries.
"Does this virus have pandemic potential?" Dr. Tedros said. "Absolutely. Are we there yet? From our assessment not yet."
In the United States, there are at least 34 confirmed cases, 18 of whom were passengers from the Diamond Princess, an infected luxury cruise ship docked off Yokohama, Japan that underwent a hasty evacuation of Americans last week that has raised questions about the government's handling of outbreak. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had advised against bringing back infected individuals on the same plane, the state Department went ahead and boarded 14 people that had tested positive for the virus.
On Saturday, the New York Times reported that President Trump was furious at the decision.
"We’re not seeing spread here in the United States yet, but it is possible, even likely, that it may eventually happen," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, during a telephone news briefing on Friday.
"This new virus represents a tremendous public health threat," she added.
But despite assurances that local health agencies would be equipped with the ability to run their own tests, the CDC is still currently administering the tests for the virus because of a flaw with the test kit that was shipped earlier this month.
"As we’ve pushed tests out to the state, they did what we would expect as part of the normal procedures, which is do the verification in their own laboratories," Messonnier said. "There were problems identified with the test kits. That is a normal part, unfortunately, of these processes."
New York City officials have sought to quell fears over the coronavirus as restaurant and shop owners in Chinatown and Flushing have complained of dramatically slower traffic.
There have been no pending tests in the city since February 12th, when the last lab result from the CDC for a New York City resident came back negative.