Italy has extended its lockdown until 13 April but signs are emerging that the rate of coronavirus infection both there and in Spain, the two countries that have suffered the highest global death tolls in the pandemic so far, may be reaching a plateau.

“Experts say we are on the right track and the drastic measures we have taken are starting to yield results,” the health minister, Roberto Speranza, said. He warned, though, that it would be “unforgivable to assume this was a definitive defeat” of Covid-19 and it would be “a long battle”.

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals.

The virus can cause pneumonia-like symptoms. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties.

In the UK, the National Heath Service has defined the symptoms as:

Medical advice varies around the world – with many countries imposing travel bans and lockdowns to try and prevent the spread of the virus. In many place people are being told to stay at home rather than visit a doctor of hospital in person. Check with your local authorities.

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days. If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January. As of 31 March, more than 780,000 people have been infected in more than 170 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

There have been over 37,800 deaths globally. Just over 3,200 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. Italy has been worst affected, with over 11,500 fatalities, and there have been over 7,700 deaths in Spain. The US now has more confirmed cases than any other country – more than 164,000. Many of those who have died had underlying health conditions, which the coronavirus complicated.

More than 166,000 people are recorded as having recovered from the coronavirus.

Italy’s civil protection authority announced on Tuesday that the country’s tally had climbed by 837 deaths to 12,428, the highest in the world, and that the number of new confirmed cases had risen by 4,053, taking the country’s total to 105,792.

But the number of infections is rising at a slower rate each day. Tuesday’s total was 4.1% more than Monday’s, which was 4.1% more than Sunday’s which was itself 5.6% more than Saturday’s. Two weeks ago, by comparison, infections were rising at between three and four times that rate.

“The curve tells us that we’re at a plateau,” said Silvio Brusaferro, the president of Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS). “That doesn’t mean we’ve hit the peak and that it’s over, but that we must start the descent … by applying the measures in force.”

Spain, which crossed the threshold of 100,000 confirmed cases on Wednesday and reported another new record single-day death toll of 864, is following a similar pattern, with officials saying on Wednesday a “trend change” was starting to be seen.

Between 15 and 25 March, new cases were growing at a rate of 20% a day. From 25 March, that rate dropped to 12% or lower. María José Sierra, of Spain’s centre for health emergencies, said the latest figures indicated that the increase in new cases was continuing to level out.

“Generally speaking, we can say that yesterday’s rise in cases, which was around 8%, tells us that we’re carrying on in the stabilisation phase of the pandemic,” Sierra told a press conference.

“If we only look at cases of people who are being treated in hospitals – the figures that allow for a precise analysis of the spread of the epidemic and of the effectiveness of our measures against the virus – then the percentage is still coming down compared to previous days. That helps tell us social distancing measures are really working.”

According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, the pandemic has now infected more than 870,000 people worldwide and killed more than 43,000. Nearly half the world’s population are living under some form of requested or mandatory confinement.

In other developments:

The heads of three global agencies warned of the risk of a worldwide food shortage if authorities fail to manage the crisis properly.

Vladimir Putin is handling duties remotely after meeting a doctor who has since been diagnosed with the virus.

Moscow has rolled out a mobile phone app and scannable bar codes to check whether people are adhering to isolation rules.

US deaths, which have exceeded those in China, could reach 240,000, according to the White House, with Donald Trump warning the country should expect a “very, very painful two weeks”.

California said the number of hospitalisations in the state had nearly doubled over the past four days and the number of ICU patients tripled.

China’s national health commission on Wednesday reported 36 new Covid-19 cases and 130 new asymptomatic cases, bringing the total number of such cases under observation to 1,367.

Saudi Arabia urged Muslims to wait before making Hajj plans until there is more clarity about the pandemic.

Japan, which reported 2,200 confirmed cases and 66 deaths, remains on the brink of a state of emergency as the rate of infections rises, officials said.

The death toll in Iran has reached 3,036, with 47,593 confirmed infections.

As equipment shortages continue to dog Europe’s response to the pandemic, France, which on Tuesday announced 499 new deaths, its biggest increase since the start of the pandemic, said it would invest €4bn in “strategic” health products including masks and respirators, with the aim of making the country “fully and completely self-sufficient” by the end of this year.

“We have to produce in France, on our territory, from now on,” the president, Emmanuel Macron, said. “Certain products and certain materials have a strategic importance and we need Europe to be independent to reduce our dependence. The day after the epidemic will not be like the day before; we must rebuild out national and European sovereignty.”

Germany’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, announced the government would financially support companies taking a gamble on switching their production to making facial masks. But politicians in Germany, which has registered 71,000 confirmed cases and 775 deaths, have declined to force industry to retool to produce protective gear or respirators.

The debate comes amid a growing sense that the relatively stable situation in German hospitals could be about to become a lot more serious as the virus moves on to the elderly population. Reports from around the country suggest a number of outbreaks in care homes for the elderly.

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