WHO warns of mask shortages as virus cases rise worldwide

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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.