• Iran's Health Ministry says the number of confirmed coronavirus deaths stands at 12, not the 50 claimed by a lawmaker
  • In South Korea, Deagu remains on lockdown to stem spread of the virus
  • European Union officials say there's no reason to close borders -- yet

Europe racheted up precautions Monday as the number of novel coronavirus cases rocketed toward 79,000 worldwide and deaths soared toward 2,500, mostly in China.

The World Health Organization reported 28 countries now report infections of COVID-19, with the risk of contracting the malady very high in China and high elsewhere. Israel and Lebanon joined the list during the weekend.

With the virus verging on pandemic, world stock markets and oil plunged in Monday trading.

"The sudden increase of cases in Italy, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Korea are deeply concerning," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.

China has taken draconian measures to stem spread of the virus, locking down millions amid fears the current respite from spiraling cases could just be temporary. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, officials walked back reports they were planning to ease the quarantine. The city has been on lockdown for several weeks.

Iran reported at least 12 deaths from the virus as of Monday, with the deputy health minister saying at least 61 have tested positive for the virus. Schools, universities and cultural centers have been closed down in 14 provinces to curb the spread.

Health Ministry spokesman Irag Harichi rejected reports the death toll had hit 50, as claimed by a member of Parliament, saying he would resign if “even half of this number is true.”

In South Korea, the number of cases spiked Monday to 833 with eight deaths. In Daegu, a city of 2.5 million people 186 miles from Seoul, residents were asked to stay indoors but despite the precaution, the number of cases had more than doubled during the weekend to 483, with more than half the cases linked to a single church, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.

"If authorities fail to contain the spread of the COVID-19 in Daegu, there is a high possibility that COVID-19 could spread nationwide," Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.

A petition was circulating calling on President Moon Jae-in to block all entries from China.

In Italy, the European country hardest hit so far, 50,000 people in 10 towns were on lockdown in a bid to stem the spread of the virus. Some 219 cases were reported, up from 152 on Sunday, said Angelo Borrelli, who is coordinating the emergency response, but maintained the situation is under control. Seven deaths have been reported.

The spread of the virus has disrupted high profile events including the Venice Carnival
The spread of the virus has disrupted high profile events including the Venice Carnival AFP / ANDREA PATTARO

Experts said the virus is being transmitted like the flu.

"You can get it from anyone," Luca Zaia, regional governor of Veneto, told reporters.

Italy proposed a meeting among health ministers in surrounding countries to adopt common guidelines to fight the outbreak. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte dismissed suspending open borders, saying it would not be “legally feasible.”

“In any case, such a measure would not guarantee any precautionary effectiveness,” he said during a video-link meeting with several ministers and regional governors.

A bus travelling from Milan to Lyon, France, was surrounded by police Monday as reports spread that one of its passengers may have been infected. Radio France Internationale reported the busdriver was hospitalized with respiratory symptoms and passengers were ordered to stay on board.

French officials insisted, however, there was no reason to close the border.

“Closing down the borders would make no sense, as the circulation of the virus is not just limited to administrative borders,” junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told the BFM television network.

The situation was reported under investigation with no immediate confirmation of infection.

Throughout Europe the number of developing cases was growing, but EU officials were cautioning against panic.

Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s European Union financial affairs commissioner, said at the Group of 20 meeting in Saudi Arabia Sunday the EU “has full confidence in the Italian authorities and the decisions they are taking” to stem the spread of the virus.

The EU has pledged $250 million to fight the virus, nearly half the funds earmarked for WHO and the bulk of the remainder to go to development of vaccines and treatments. WHO warned Monday the world is not prepared for a major outbreak.

In Russia, where the number of confirmed and suspected cases stood at four Sunday, public transit drivers in Moscow have been told to notify authorities if they spot any Chinese nationals aboard, said Yuri Dashkov, head of the Interregional Trade Union of Public Transport Workers. He said drivers are confused.

"No one understands how to fulfil this requirement,” said Dashkov. “Even if drivers see people from China on board, on what grounds should they check their identity? What if he's not a Chinese, but a Korean?"

Russia last week temporarily banned anyone from China crossing into its territory.

Austria’s railway suspended all traffic from Italy.