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Asia Today: New cases in S Korea linked to club goers

BANGKOK (AP) — South Korean officials sounded alarm Friday after finding more than a dozen coronavirus infections linked to club goers in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area.

The discovery raised fears of another surge in transmissions just as the country had eased on social distancing amid a slowing caseload in past weeks.

Earlier Friday, South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 12 fresh cases of COVID-19 in the 24 hours to midnight Thursday, which was the first time in five days that the daily jump came above 10.

But Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said at least 13 more cases were diagnosed in the following hours, all linked to a 29-year-old patient who visited three nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district last Saturday before testing positive on Wednesday.

Kim said there was a “very high possibility” more infections will be confirmed as health workers are scrambling to trace the patient’s contacts. He said the clubs’ visitor lists show they received more than 1,500 customers combined on Saturday.

Of the 13 new cases confirmed on Friday, Kim says 12 were club goers, including three foreign nationals and one soldier, while the other was an office colleague of the patient who was first detected.

“A drop of ink in clear water spreads swiftly,” Kim said during a briefing, urging vigilance to maintain hard-won gains against the virus. “Anyone can become that drop of ink that spreads COVID-19.”

The country has not reported a daily jump above 100 since April 1, which allowed officials to ease social distancing guidelines, schedule the re-pening of schools and allow professional sports to return without fans in the stands.

— KIM PRAISES XI: North Korea says leader Kim Jong Un sent a personal message to Chinese President Xi Jinping praising what he described as China’s success in getting its coronavirus epidemic under control. The report by North Korea’s state media followed an assessment by South Korea's spy agency that the pandemic is hurting the North's economy, already crippled by decades of policy failures and U.S.-led international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program. China is North Korea’s most significant ally and economic lifeline, accounting for about 90% of the country’s external trade. With China’s COVID-19 caseload easing, some experts say the North could reach out to China to reinvigorate cross-border trade that had been significantly reduced in past months.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— ABE, TRUMP DISCUSS COOPERATION: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump held telephone talks Friday and agreed to closely cooperate in developing vaccines and drugs for COVID-19. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters the leaders exchanged views on the COVID-19 situation, measures to prevent further spread of the virus, development of drugs and vaccines and steps for reopening the economies in their countries. He said Abe initiated the talks. The Japanese Health Ministry, in a rare fast-track process, approved Gilead Sciences Inc.’s antiviral drug remdesivir on Thursday to treat COVID-19 patients.

— CHINA CENSORS EU OP-ED: The European Union delegation to China says Beijing allowed a Chinese state newspaper to publish an op-ed from the delegation only after a reference to the Chinese origins and spread of the coronavirus was removed. “The EU Delegation to China made known its objections to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in no uncertain terms,” the delegation said in a statement Friday. However, it said it decided to proceed with publication because the op-ed “passed key messages on a number of our priority areas to a potential audience of more than 1 billion readers,” including on climate change and sustainability, human rights, the importance of multilateralism and debt relief for highly indebted countries. Only the English-language China Daily published the editorial, although the original agreement had also called for it to be published in the ruling Communist Party’s Chinese-language flagship People’s Daily. The complete sentence as published on the EU’s website and those of several member states said, “But the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months, has meant that our preexisting plans have been temporarily side-tracked.” The China Daily version appeared without the words, “in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months.”

— NO TRAVEL TO AUSTRALIA JUST YET: Australia plans to reopen the economy in three stages by July, but there are no plans to open the country to general international travelers in the foreseeable future. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday the states will set their own pace in easing coronavirus restrictions and details of the second and third stages of the plan had yet to be finalized. Australia’s two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, are continuing to record new cases daily while the other states and territories have gone multiple days without finding new infections despite more testing. Morrison said he was open to the possibility of international students returning to Australian universities on charter flights, but general international travel would not open up “in the foreseeable future.” Under stage one of a national plan agreed by federal and state leaders on Friday, small cafes and restaurants will open as long as each patron has at least 4 square meters (43 square feet) of space. Children will return to classrooms and groups of 10 people will be allowed to gather outdoors. Playgrounds, golf courses, swimming pools and libraries will reopen.

— TOKYO GAME SHOW GOES ONLINE: The annual Tokyo Game Show, which highlights the latest video game software and machines, is moving online to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Details of the event will be disclosed starting late May, Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association and other organizers said in a joint statement. “We are making this decision out of concern for the health and safety of the visitors, exhibitors and other participants,” the statement said. The Tokyo Game Show was scheduled to be held in sprawling Makuhari Messe, outside Tokyo, Sept. 24 through Sept. 27. In the past, Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp., as well game developers from around the world, set up about 2,000 booths that have drawn crowds of more than 250,000 people.

— LOW-KEY VESAK IN SRI LANKA: Sri Lanka's majority Buddhists celebrated Vesak — the most important religious festival of the year — in low key because of the COVID-19 outbreak, as the government released 228 prisoners to mark the event. The Health Ministry has canceled all celebrations and mass gatherings. Buddhist temples were deserted on Friday and Thursday as monks requested devotees to observe the holiday at home. Vesak marks the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha. Usually, Sri Lankan Buddhists erect huge pandals and lanterns, which are illuminated with thousands of bulbs. Instead, people decorated their homes with Buddhist flags, lanterns, colorful bulbs and lit oil lamps.

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