'Cult' leader at centre of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak

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The city, with a population of 2.5 million, found itself struggling to deal with the fallout on Friday, as most of the new cases continue to be linked to a 61-year-old woman who is considered a "super spreader" of the virus.

Workers on motorcycles sprayed disinfectant outside the Shincheonji church in the city, where passer-by Seo Dong-min, 24, told AFP: "With so many confirmed cases here I'm anxious that Daegu will become the second Wuhan", referring to the Chinese city where the virus first emerged.

The malls and restaurants in Daegu were empty and streets eerily quiet on Friday after the number of cases of coronavirus in South Korea doubled overnight to 204, nearly all of them in and around the fourth largest city.

Shincheonji, which translates as "New heaven and new Earth", is a controversial new religious movement established in 1984 by Lee Man-hee.

He said during the 2003 SARS epidemic and other disease outbreaks, cases in North Korea often went unreported or underreported. "Just like Job's faith was tested, it is an attempt to destroy our progress", he wrote.

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In Beijing, health officials said 36 people, including medical staff, patients and their families, have now tested positive for the virus at Fuxing hospital, which has been under partial lockdown since January 31. But the number of cases is likely to surge as some 500 of those church goers are saying they have symptoms of the coronavirus.

The church has since apologised for the spread of the virus and its 1,001 members in Daegu are now under self-quarantine.

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In all, three more people had tested positive for the virus, an Iranian health ministry spokesman said.

President Moon has called for officials to investigate the church services as well as a funeral service at a hospital nearby which was attended by many church members.

Two South Korean COVID-19 patients died during the week from pneumonia.

"We need a thorough investigation on the church and the funeral attendees", Moon said.

Lee called on his followers to obey instructions from government authorities and to avoid holding meetings. "All of our 9,000 believers are at home", the man, who declined to give his name, said before placing some "no entry" signs around the premises. 'Let's also overcome this trial'. But the woman assumed she had a common cold and kept coming to the church because she hadn't traveled overseas, church officials said. It said in a statement that health officials were disinfecting its church in Daegu and were tracing the woman's contacts.

Twenty-four doctors have also been sent to the city, and the number of centers for virus detection is to be expanded. Jung continued it was "difficult" to believe Patient No. 31 was the one who initially transmitted the virus to other worshippers at the church because there were a few other people at the church who seemed to have contracted the virus around the same time, which means they all might been exposed to some other source of the virus and then transmitted the disease to others on February 9 and last Sunday when they attended a church service.

Shincheonji, which claims 200,000 followers in South Korea, has now told members to instead watch its services on YouTube. South Korea's CDC, in providing its infection statistics, described Shincheonji as "a Korean cult".

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