Saudi Arabia halts Mecca travel over virus

By AAP Newswire

Saudi Arabia has halted travel to the holiest sites in Islam over fears about a viral epidemic just months ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage, a move that came as the Mideast has over 220 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus.

The extraordinary decision by Saudi Arabia stops foreigners from reaching the holy city of Mecca and the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure the world's 1.8 billion Muslims pray toward five times a day.

The decision also affected travel to Prophet Mohammed's mosque in Medina. Authorities also suspended entry to the kingdom to those with tourist visas from nations affected by the new virus.

The decision showed the worry about the outbreak potentially spreading into Saudi Arabia, whose oil-rich monarchy stakes its legitimacy on protecting Islam's holy sites.

The epicentre in the Mideast's most-affected country, Iran, appears to be in the holy Shi'Ite city of Qom, where the faithful in reverence reach out to kiss and touch a famous shrine.

Iran now has the highest death toll from the virus outside of China, where the outbreak began.

There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak.

Since it emerged in December in central China, the new coronavirus has sickened 82,000 people globally, with more than 2700 deaths.