WHO warns of mask shortages as virus cases rise worldwide

Countries rushed to protect their supply of masks on Wednesday as panic buying, hoarding and theft spread over fears of the deadly coronavirus epidemic, with global health officials warning that stocks of protective gear were rapidly dwindling. The disease, which first emerged in China, is appearing in new countries almost every day, with Iran, Italy and South Korea facing growing caseloads.

The death toll in Italy soared to 79 on Tuesday, with more than 2,500 people infected. A group of Italian tourists was placed in quarantine in India, with 17 testing positive for the virus. One bright spot has been China's apparent progress in slowing the epidemic, with official figures on Wednesday showing new cases falling for a third straight day. More than 90,000 people have been infected and around 3,200 have died worldwide, with Iraq reporting its first death from the disease on Wednesday while dozens have died so far in neighbouring Iran. The death rate is around 3.4 percent, much higher than the seasonal flu at under one percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The vast majority of cases and fatalities have been in China where tens of millions of people have been placed under quarantine, but infections are rising faster abroad now, prompting countries to discourage large gatherings and cancel a slew of events. The death toll in the United States climbed to nine, many linked to a nursing home near Seattle, while the overall number of infections shot past 100. The WHO voiced concern that masks, goggles and other protective equipment used by health workers were running out due to "rising demand, hoarding and misuse". We can't stop COVID-19 without protecting our health workers," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva, noting prices of masks have surged sixfold and the cost of ventilators has tripled. Tedros said the WHO had shipped more than half a million sets of personal protective equipment to 27 countries, but warned that "supplies are rapidly depleting". Shortages of equipment in China caused thousands of medical workers to become infected with a dozen dying, prompting the country to step up supplies by repurposing production lines at diaper, coat and smartphone factories to make masks and hazmat suits.

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