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Coronavirus: Italy scrambles to contain biggest outbreak in Europe

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MILAN: Italy scrambled yesterday to contain the biggest outbreak of the virus in Europe, shutting off the worst affected towns and cancelling public events as the number of those infected jumped above 130.

The government passed stringent emergency measures late on Saturday after the first two deaths from the disease were recorded in the wealthy northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.

The number of certified cases of the illness in Lombardy rose to 89 from 54 a day earlier, while in Veneto some 24 people had come down with the virus, including two people in Venice, which is packed with tourists for an annual carnival.

Health officials reported isolated cases in the neighbouring regions of Piedmont and Emilia Romagna, saying the total number of known infections in Italy was 132.

Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto with a combined population of around 50,000 have effectively been placed under quarantine, with locals urged to stay home and special permission needed to enter or leave designated areas.

Universities were shuttered across northern Italy until early next month and four top flight Serie A soccer matches set for yesterday were postponed.

Lombardy and Veneto represent Italy's industrial heartland and jointly account for 30 per cent of gross domestic output, so any prolonged disruption there is likely to have a serious impact on the whole economy, which is already flirting with recession.

Lombardy, home to Italy's financial capital Milan, ordered all schools in the region to close, and said all public gatherings should be cancelled, including religious services. Museums and public libraries will also be shut.

Health authorities are struggling to work out how the outbreak started. The first cases were announced only on Friday and doctors do not know the source of the illness.

The situation in Iran is equally dire as it recorded eight deaths, the highest outside China so far.

It also confirmed 15 new cases yesterday, taking the total to 43. Most of the infections have been in the Shi'ite holy city of Qom.

"The virus came from China to Qom city. A Merchant from Qom who died of the virus used to regularly travel to China... Flights were suspended between the two countries but he used indirect flights," Health Minister Saeed Namaki said. - REUTERS