Italy seeks to calm fears in Europe as cases, deaths rise

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Italy's Minister of Health Roberto Speranza, and World Health organization Director for Europe Hans Kluge arrive for a press conference at the end of their meeting in Rome, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME – Italy sought to rally international support for its virus containment efforts Wednesday even as its caseload reached 447, people linked to Italy fell ill across Europe and as far away as Brazil, and the U.N.'s health agency urged a scaled-up response.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte's government appealed to European neighbors for cooperation, not isolation and discrimination. Italy has been struggling to contain the rapidly spreading outbreak that made it the country with more coronavirus cases outside Asia than anywhere else.

“Viruses don’t know borders and they don’t stop at them,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza insisted at the start of a crisis meeting with World Health Organization and European Union representatives in Rome.

Twelve people infected with the virus have died in Italy since Friday, all of them elderly, having other health conditions or both, civil protection chief Angelo Borelli said.

The Italian government has defended its handling of the public health emergency while acknowledging the inability to pinpoint the origins of two clusters in the northern Lombardy and Veneto regions, as well as growing alarm as cases increase.

Germany and France also reported two cases apiece in people with no known ties to Italy, travel to China or contact with an infected person, raising concern about additional clusters of no known origin possibly forming in Europe.

“We are at the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic in Germany,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, adding that he had asked state health officials to review their emergency plans for pandemics.

Latin America's first confirmed virus case did have a clear Italian connections. Officials reported Wednesday that a Brazilian man who recently visited Lombardy, the epicenter of Italy's outbreak, tested positive. Algeria reported Tuesday night that an Italian man who traveled to the north African country this month as its first case.