Saudi Arabia has taken the unprecedented step of banning foreign pilgrims from entering the country five months before the annual hajj pilgrimages in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus, after 240 cases were confirmed around the Middle East, most of them in Iran.
Authorities in Riyadh said the ban was temporary, but did not say how long it might last. The country has yet to report a case of the virus.
“The kingdom’s government has decided to [suspend] entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visit to the prophet’s mosque temporarily,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.
It added that tourist visas would be suspended “for those coming from countries in which the spread of the new coronavirus is a danger” and urged Saudi citizens not to travel to countries where the disease was proliferating.
The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of devout Muslims from all over the globe each year.
There was no clarity over how the move would affect the annual hajj pilgrimage due to start in late July.
Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world to take part in last year’s hajj – one of the five pillars of Islam.
The event is a key rite of passage for Muslims and a huge logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites.
“This move by Saudi Arabia is unprecedented,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based risk consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, told Agence France-Presse. “The concern for Saudi authorities would be Ramadan, which starts at the end of April, and hajj afterwards, should the coronavirus become a pandemic.”
Iran remains the regional hot spot for the coronavirus and is the country with the highest death toll outside China, where the Covid-19 outbreak originated.
Iran’s state-run Irna news agency reported that the country had confirmed 141 cases and 22 deaths. But experts fear Iran is underreporting the number of cases.
Kuwait saw the number of cases jump from 26 to 43 on Thursday – all linked to people who had recently visited Iran. Bahrain has reported 33 cases, the United Arab Emirates 13, Iraq 6 and Oman four.
South Korea, which has the highest number of cases outside mainland China, reported a further 334 new cases on Thursday, bringing its total to 1,595. Most of the cases were again centred on Daegu where a church at the centre of the country’s outbreak is located.
Italy remains the centre of European infection, with 440 confirmed cases.
Denmark recorded its first case – a man returning after a skiing holiday in Italy – while Estonia, Pakistan, Brazil, Georgia, Norway, Macedonia, Greece and Romania are among the countries that have reported their first case of coronavirus in the past 24 hours.
As many countries took drastic measures and unveiled emergency plans, Donald Trump sought to downplay the threat posed by the virus.
In a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, the US president said the danger to Americans remained “very low” and predicted that the number of cases diagnosed in the country – currently at 15 – could fall to zero in a “few days”.
“We have had tremendous success, tremendous success, beyond what people would have thought. At the same time, you do have some outbreaks in some countries – Italy and various countries are having some difficulties,” he said, in remarks that appeared to be contradicted by officials from his own administration at the same media briefing.
The president also said that stock markets, which have seen substantial falls in recent days because of worries about the global economic impact of the virus, would recover, even attempting to blame the Democratic leadership debate for the losses on Wall Street.
Trump, who said he was placing vice-president Mike Pence in charge of coordinating the US response, lavished praise on health officials but they delivered a rather different message.
Dr Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), appeared to reiterate her organisation’s warning on Tuesday that a greater spread in the US was inevitable.
“Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases we have so far. However, we do expect more cases,” said Schuchat.
The US health secretary, Alex Azar, has requested $2.5bn (£1.94bn) in emergency funding from Congress to increase America’s preparedness, but Democrat lawmakers said that was inadequate and have suggested an $8.5bn package.
A warning about the potential danger in the US came from the CDCP shortly after Trump finished speaking. It said that a person in northern California contracted the virus without travelling outside of the US or having contact with a confirmed case.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, a staunch Trump ally, announced the country would enact the country’s emergency response plan, which could include quarantining of large number of people in sports stadiums if necessary.
“There is every indication the world will soon enter the pandemic phase of the virus,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “We believe the risk of a pandemic is very much upon us and we as a government need to take steps necessary to prepare for such a pandemic.”
Morrison was speaking after evidence continued to mount from the rest of the world that the number of cases of the virus, which has killed nearly 3,000 people and infected more than 82,000, was rising unchecked, and as countries stepped up their policy responses.
Associated Press and AFP contributed to this report