By Sinéad Baker

The number of daily coronavirus cases reported by China has been in steep decline for about a week — and it means South Korea now appears to be the new center of the epidemic.

South Korea reported 516 new cases on Wednesday, compared with China’s 130 new cases.

Though China still has the most active cases of the novel coronavirus of any country, the pace of its spread has slowed sharply, while the number of recoveries has soared.

At the same time, South Korea has become the second-most-infected country, experiencing a spread far more rapid than in China, where the virus first appeared late last year.

South Korea’s first virus case was on January 20. As of Wednesday, it had more than 5,600 cases and 32 deaths.

People in line to buy face masks in front of a store at Dongseongro shopping district in Daegu on February 27.

In absolute terms, China is still by far the most affected, with 80,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and a death toll of 2,981.

But the gap is narrowing.

Elsewhere, Italy and Iran have the highest number of deaths outside China, with 77 and 79.

Both have reported more than 2,300 cases. The case numbers and death toll in Iran are subject to some doubt after apparent efforts by authorities there to hide the scale of the outbreak.

South Korea’s medical system is overwhelmed, while the virus appears to have peaked in China

The outbreak in South Korea has largely been traced to a religious group in the city of Daegu.

The city, which is the country’s fourth-largest, has seen its health system overwhelmed.

As of Wednesday, 2,300 people were waiting to get into hospitals and temporary medical treatment centers, the country’s deputy health minister said, according to Reuters.

Workers in protective gear spraying an antiseptic solution to fight the novel coronavirus in a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, on February 21.

Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, said in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that the “entire nation has entered a state of war against this infectious disease.”

He also apologized for a shortage in face masks and said: “An explosion in the number of confirmed cases and increasing concern about local infections have made it difficult for supply to keep up with soaring demand, and importing masks is not feasible either.” 

In China, the number of daily cases has slowed.

A World Health Organization expert who visited China at the end of February said the virus appeared to have peaked there, even as its spread around the rest of the world advanced.

China had taken extreme quarantine measures, including locking down cities of many millions of people, in a bid to stop the spread.

It built new hospitals from scratch, deployed many thousands of medics to the worst-hit areas, and imposed sweeping restrictions on travel.

Workers arranging beds in a 2,000-bed mobile hospital set up in an exhibition center in Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province, on February 4.

In another sign of a potential thaw, China moved toward lifting some of its lockdown measures.

China’s central government on Wednesday said migrant workers outside Beijing and the Hubei province, where the virus originated, no longer needed to go through quarantine procedures if they met certain criteria.

China has about 300 million migrant workers, but many were stuck in the countryside and unable to go to cities as the virus took hold.

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