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COVID-19 outbreak: China says bats, pangolin likely 'virus hosts'

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COVID-19 outbreak: China says bats, pangolin likely 'virus hosts'
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Health experts studying COVID-19 believe bats are the original hosts of the virus and that pangolins are likely "intermediate hosts".

Liang Wannian made the announcement during a press conference to update reporters on China's joint mission with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Bats are already suspected of being the animal reservoir behind the 2003 SARS coronavirus outbreak in which 8,000 people were infected and 774 died.

Pangolins are considered to be vulnerable to critically endangered by the WWF environmental group and are commonly referred to as the most trafficked mammal in the world. Its scales are particularly sought after because they are used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

Bruce Aylward commended China for its rapid response to the virus which he described as "probably the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history" and called on other countries not to isolate China.

"The risk from China is dropping and what the Chinese have to offer to the global response is rapidly rising," he went on.

He also praised Italy for taking "extremely aggressive actions" on Sunday including the lockdown of more than 10 towns.

He described countries across Europe, Asia and Northern America where cases of the virus have been confirmed as "the second line of defence" in preventing the disease from spreading to low-income nations less equipped to tackle the threat.

The update came as the number of non-Chinese deaths from the virus has shot up in recent days with reports suggesting as many as 50 people could have died in Iran following an outbreak of the disease in the city of Qom.

Ahmad Amiriabadi Farahani, an official in the city, gave the number on Iran's semi-official ILNA news agency just hours after Iranian officials said that only 12 people had died out of a total 43 cases in the country.

A popular destination for Shiite pilgrims, as many as 250 have been qurantined in Qom, Ahmad Amiriabadi Farahani, an official in the city, told ILNA.

He said the situation is “not good”.

His comments have led to a denial by the government. "I categorically deny this information," vice minister of health Iraj Harirtchi said at a press conference.

Meanwhile, South Korea reported another large jump in new virus cases Monday, a day after the the president called for “unprecedented, powerful” steps to combat the outbreak that is increasingly confounding attempts to stop the spread.

The 161 new cases bring South Korea's total to 763 cases, and two more deaths raise its toll to seven.

China also reported 409 new cases on Monday, raising the mainland's total to 77,150 after a zigzag pattern of increases in recent days. The 150 new deaths from the COVID-19 illness raised China's total to 2,592. All but one death were in Hubei province, where the outbreak emerged in December.

Significant jumps in cases outside China have raised concern of the outbreak getting out of control. South Korea has the third-highest national total behind China and Japan, and cases have rapidly increased in Italy and Iran.

More than 140 of South Korea's new cases were in and near Daegu, the city of 2.5 million people where most of the country's infections have occurred. Six of the seven deaths were linked to a hospital in Cheongdo, near Daegu, where a slew of infections were confirmed among patients in a mental ward.

The stark increase in cases was partly linked to a religious organisation primarily in Daegu, South Korea's fourth-largest city, the KCDC said.

The controversial Shincheonji church closed its 74 churches and affiliated institutions for quarantine. It expressed "deep regret" that many patients contracted the virus in its community.

The situation has also opened up the church to more criticism for its controversial beliefs.

"Shincheonji followers believe Lee Man-hee [the founder] is immortal and has an eternal life,'' said Ji-il Tark at Busan Presbyterian University in South Korea. He added that they often sit close together in services and must attend services.

The church said they were cooperating with the quarantine and denounced other Christian groups' claims as false.

Cases at the nearby Cheongdo Daenam hospital in South Korea also skyrocketed.

The KCDC warned anyone "who has attended a service at Shincheonji Church or visited Cheongdo Daenam hospital in February" to "stay home and avoid unnecessary outdoor activities".

Israelis and Palestinians are asked to quarantine themselves

Meanwhile, a diplomatic row erupted after Israel turned back a South Korean airliner, underscoring fear and tensions over the outbreak.

A Korean Air flight with 188 passengers that landed at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport Saturday evening was taxied away from the terminal while authorities allowed only 11 Israelis to enter the country. The plane returned to South Korea with the rest of the passengers on Sunday.

Prior to this on Saturday Israeli and Palestinian health authorities had asked people who had been in close contact with a group of South Korean tourists to quarantine themselves.

The request came after South Korea informed Israel that nine members of the group who toured Israel and the West Bank for a week this month tested positive for the new virus.

The tourists were diagnosed upon returning home.

Israel's Health Ministry said it's investigating whether the Korean tourists had transmitted the virus while in the country.

The ministry published a list of places the tourists visited, including churches in Jerusalem and other cities, and instructed people who came into close contact with the group to notify the ministry and quarantine themselves for 14 days.

A similar warning was issued by the Palestinian health ministry.

On Friday, Israel said a passenger who was quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan was diagnosed with the virus after he was flown home with a group of 11 Israelis, making it the first case to be reported inside Israel. The others are in quarantine.

Three other Israelis are being treated in Japan after contracting the virus on the cruise ship.

There have been no cases recorded in the Palestinian territories/

Italy takes drastic measures

In Italy's northern Lombardy region, which includes the nation's financial capital, Milan, the governor announced Sunday that the number of confirmed cases stood at 110. Italy now has 152 cases, the largest number outside of Asia, including three deaths.

Venice, which is full of tourists for Carnival events, reported its first two cases, said Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia, whose region includes the lagoon city. It wasn't immediately known if the two infected had participated in Carnival festivities.

As Italy scrambled to check the spread of the virus, authorities announced that all Carnival events had been called off as well as major league soccer matches in the stricken region. Cinemas and theaters were also ordered shuttered, including Milan's legendary La Scala.

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