Seoul: South Korea is raising its alert level on the new coronavirus to the "highest", President Moon Jae-in said Sunday, in the face of a sudden spike in the number of infections.
"The COVID-19 incident faces a grave turning point. The next few days will be crucial," Moon said following a government meeting on the virus.
"The government will raise the alert level to the highest level according to experts' recommendations," he added.
South Korea has seen a rapid surge in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days after a cluster of infections emerged from a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu last week.
The national toll of 556 cases is now the highest outside China, apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
Italy and Iran took drastic containment steps as worldwide fears over the epidemic spiralled.
The contagion's spread prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to warn that Africa's unprepared health systems left the continent vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease, which spilled out of China and has infected more than 77,000 people in more than 25 countries.
Already one of the worst-hit nations outside China, South Korea reported 123 new cases Sunday, taking its total to 556.
Its death toll rose to four with two additional fatalities reported, a day after Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said South Korea faced a “grave” situation.
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southern city of Daegu -- considered by many a cult -- has emerged as a hotbed of contagion, with hundreds of members infected.
Chung called on Koreans to avoid large gatherings, including religious services....