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South Korea placed on high alert over virus

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president said Sunday that he was putting his country on its highest alert for infectious diseases, ordering officials to take “unprecedented, powerful” steps to fight a soaring viral outbreak, while a continent away in Italy, authorities battled to contain Europe’s first major outbreak of the virus.

China also reported hundreds more infections for a total of about 77,000, and Iran raised its death toll from the virus to eight — the highest toll outside of China. While the number of patients worldwide is increasing, some virus clusters have shown no link to China and experts are struggling to trace where those clusters started.

The Iranian health ministry said there were now 43 confirmed cases in Iran, which did not report its first case of the virus until Wednesday.

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, the most recent on Sunday.

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.

Warning that China’s virus epidemic is “still grim and complex,” President Xi Jinping called for more efforts to stop the outbreak, revive industry and prevent the disease from disrupting spring planting of crops.

Xi defended the ruling Communist Party’s response as “timely and effective” in a video conference with officials in charge of anti-disease work, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

“The current epidemic situation is still grim and complex,” Xinhua cited Xi as saying. “Prevention and control are at the most critical stage.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government had increased its anti-virus alert level by one notch to “Red,” the highest level, in response to the spread of the disease that has infected more than 600 people in the country, mostly in the last few days. The step was last taken in 2009 to guard against a novel influenza outbreak that killed more than 260 people in South Korea. Under the highest alert level, authorities can order the temporary closure of schools and reduce the operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea.

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