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BERLIN, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Germany is at the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic after new cases sprung up that can no longer be traced to the virus's original source in China, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Wednesday.
A total of five new cases of coronavirus in the west and south of Germany - taking the country's total to around 20 - meant the disease appeared to be moving to a new phase, Spahn told a news conference, urging health authorities and employers to review their pandemic planning.
"The infection chains are partially no longer trackable, and that is a new thing," Spahn said.
"Large numbers of people have had contact with the patients, and that is a big change to the 16 patients we had until now where the chain could be traced back to the origin in China."
He warned against unnecessary panic, saying "not every cough is a case of coronavirus". Spahn added that Germany was well equipped with isolation wards in hospitals if they should be needed in larger numbers.
"We are acting swiftly and adapting our reactions to the current situation, and unfortunately I have to say that the situation has changed in the past hours," he said.
In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians, or people who had recently visited the country, have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.
A second person suffering from the coronavirus died in France as health officials tried to find out how the college teacher, who had not visited any country with a known outbreak, had caught the new disease.
The new coronavirus, believed to have originated from illegal wildlife sold in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, has infected some 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700 people, most of them in China. (Reporting by Thomas Escritt Editing by Gareth Jones/Mark Heinrich)
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