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Virus crisis tracks West, ebbing in China; Fed slashes rates

(Employees wearing protective gear spray disinfectant to sanitize a passenger bus as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Lviv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Ukrainian Chief sanitary and epidemiological doctor Viktor Liashko has just reported its first confirmed case of the new COVID-19 coronavirus, saying a man who recently arrived from Italy was diagnosed with the virus. AP Photo: Mykola Tys)

By KEN MORITSUGU and LORI HINNANT, BEIJING (AP): The coronavirus crisis shifted increasingly westward toward Europe and the United States on Tuesday, with the U.S. Federal Reserve announcing the biggest interest-rate cut in over a decade to try to fend off damage to the world’s biggest economy.

The disease reached deep into Iran’s government, where 23 members of Parliament and the head of the country’s emergency services were reported infected. South Korea started drive-thru testing. The French government announced it is requisitioning supplies of protective masks. And nearly 100 Spanish health care workers were held in isolation.

Virus clusters in the United States led schools and subways to sanitize, quickened the search for a vaccine and spread fears among nursing home residents, who are especially vulnerable.

“We are in uncharted territory,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

The mushrooming outbreaks contrasted with optimism in China, where thousands of recovered patients were going home and the number of new infections dropped to the lowest level in several weeks.

On Wall Street, stocks jumped after the Federal Reserve announced the emergency rate cut. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said the coronavirus “poses evolving risks to economic activity.” Other Group of Seven countries appeared more reluctant to follow suit, probably because many of their interest rates are already near or below zero.

The U.S. count of COVID-19 cases topped 100, spread across at least 11 states. Six people have died, all in Washington state.

Iran’s supreme leader ordered the military to assist health officials in fighting the virus, which authorities said has killed 77 people — the deadliest outbreak outside China. Among the dead are a confidant of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican and a recently elected member of Parliament.

Iran’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, said some people are stockpiling medical supplies for profit and urged prosecutors to show no mercy.

“Hoarding sanitizing items is playing with people’s lives, and it is not ignorable,” he said.

France’s president announced the government will take control of current and future stocks of face masks to ensure they could go to health workers and coronavirus patients, and the finance minister warned that binge-shopping for household essentials could trigger shortages.

South Korea saw its largest daily increase in new cases Tuesday, with 851 more infections reported, largely in and around the southeastern city of Daegu. In all, 5,186 in South Korea have tested positive for the virus.

In the capital of Seoul, drive-thru virus testing centers began operating, with workers dressed head-to-toe in white protective suits leaning into cars with mouth swabs, a move meant to limit contact with possible carriers of the illness. Troops were also dispatched across the city to spray streets and alleys with disinfectant.

Worldwide, more than 90,000 people have been sickened and 3,100 have died. The number of countries hit by the virus has reached at least 70, with Ukraine and Morocco reporting their first cases.

In China, the count of new cases dropped again Tuesday, with just 125 reported. It is still by far the hardest-hit country, with over 80,000 infections and about 95% of the world’s deaths.

China’s ambassador to the United Nations said the country is winning its battle against COVID-19.

“We are not far from the coming of the victory,” Zhang Jun said.

The count of infected people in Italy climbed to 2,036 with 52 dead, and officials said it could take up to two weeks to know whether measures including quarantines in 11 northern towns are working.

In the U.S., Capitol Hill aides said negotiations are nearing completion on an emergency bill to fund the development of a vaccine and offer disaster loans to businesses hurt by the crisis.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a leading public health official in the U.S., urged calm: “Caution, preparedness, but not panic.”

In Japan, questions continued to build about the fate of the Olympics.

The country’s Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, said Japan is “making the utmost effort” to proceed with the games’ opening on July 24 in Tokyo. But she told parliament that the country’s contract with the International Olympic Committee specifies only that the games be held in 2020, meaning they could be postponed to later in the year if necessary.

Hinnant reported in Paris. Contributors include Martin Crutsinger and Christopher Rugaber in Washington; Matt Sedensky in Bangkok; Nicole Winfield in Rome; Aritz Parra in Madrid; Chris Grygiel in Seattle; Kim Tong-Hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Stephen Wade in Tokyo; Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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