A quarter of the Italian population were put under lockdown on Sunday as the government took drastic measures to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus that is sweeping the globe, with Latin America recording its first fatality.

Italy has seen the most deaths from the COVID-19 disease of any country outside China, where the outbreak that has now infected 100,000 worldwide began in December.

Until April 3, people will be barred from entering or leaving vast areas of northern Italy without a serious and urgent reason to do so, according to a decree signed off by the prime minister overnight and published online.

These quarantine zones are home to more than 15 million people and include the regions around Venice and financial capital Milan, while cinemas, theatres and museums will be closed nationwide.

So far most of the world's 3,500 virus deaths have been in China, but COVID-19 has affected people in at least 95 nations and territories.

Argentina on Saturday became the first Latin American country to report a death. 

Anxious passengers aboard a US cruise ship were confined to their cabins in waters off San Francisco, awaiting test results after an outbreak among the crew.

The fast-spreading virus has already spread to 30 US states, killing at least 19 people, with New York announcing a state of emergency.

Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the US response to the COVID-19 outbreak, gave no indication Saturday as to when the Grand Princess ship might dock, saying only that it would be over the weekend.

He said all 3,533 passengers and crew would be tested for the coronavirus and quarantined if necessary, after news that 21 out of 45 people tested on board had the virus.

Meanwhile, another cruise ship, the Costa Fortuna, was turned away by Malaysia and Thailand due to virus fears, an official said Sunday. The boat is carrying around 2,000 people, including dozens of Italians.

'Sombre moment' 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described worldwide virus cases passing the 100,000-mark as a "sombre moment".

However in China, the number of new cases reported Sunday nationwide was the lowest in weeks, with nearly all 44 of them in the outbreak epicentre Wuhan.

The government has hinted it may soon lift the quarantine imposed on locked-down Hubei province, where some 56 million people have been effectively housebound since late January and of which Wuhan is the capital.

The only infections in China beyond the epicentre were imported abroad, including arrivals from Italy and Spain in Beijing, as fears grow about cases being brought into the country from overseas.

The WHO said the efforts of China and other countries were "demonstrating that spread of the virus can be slowed" with the path of the disease even "reversed through the implementation of robust containment and control activities".

As recorded deaths in Italy soared to 233 on Saturday, the Vatican announced Pope Francis's Angelus prayer - normally delivered by the 83-year-old pontiff from his window - would be broadcast as a live stream.

Italy has the world's second oldest population after Japan, according to the World Bank, and older people appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the new coronavirus.

Retired doctors are being recruited to bolster the Italian healthcare system with 20,000 more staff while civil protection officials say Lombardy region is having trouble finding beds in hospitals.

Global spread

Colombia, Costa Rica, Malta, the Maldives, Bulgaria and Paraguay have also announced their first cases.

The number of infections in South Korea passed 7,000 on Saturday -- the highest in the world outside China.

Iran's 21 new deaths from the novel coronavirus and 1,076 fresh cases in the past 24 hours brought the overall tolls there to 145 dead and 5,823 infected.

The outbreaks have hit international business, tourism, and sports events, with almost 300 million students sent home worldwide as schools and universities close.

Dozens of sports events have been cancelled.

The Scotland-France women's rugby match scheduled for Saturday in Glasgow was postponed after a Scottish player tested positive for the coronavirus, Scottish Rugby said.

Organisers of the Barcelona marathon on Saturday postponed the event, which had been scheduled for March 15, until October 25.

And in Canada, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) called off the Women's World Ice Hockey Championships, which had been set to run from March 31 to April 10.

But Saudi Arabia reopened the area around the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, after suspending the year-long umra pilgrimage during which worshippers circle the Kaaba seven times.

However, access to the Kaaba is blocked and the Grand Mosque is being sterilised.


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