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NEW DELHI : India reported its first death related to the coronavirus outbreak on Thursday and three state governments declared an epidemic as the country scaled up efforts to contain the spread of the disease.

“The 76-year-old man from Kalburgi who passed away was a suspected Covid-19 patient has been confirmed for Covid-19," the Karnataka health department said in a statement late on Thursday. The victim, Siddiq, died on Tuesday night on his way from Hyderabad to Kalaburagi, about 575km from Bengaluru. Siddiq was being treated at a hospital in Kalaburagi for symptoms such as breathlessness, cold and cough after he returned from Saudi Arabia on 29 February.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi clamped down on foreign travel by his ministers. “No Minister of the Central government will travel abroad in the upcoming days. I urge our countrymen to also avoid non-essential travel," Modi said in a series of tweets.

His comment came a day after the government temporarily barred the entry of foreigners by cancelling most visas till 15 April, part of what it called “multiple steps" to ensure safety for all.

These measures came in wake of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the spread a pandemic.

“In the days and weeks ahead, it is expected to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher," it warned.

The health agency also urged nations to activate and scale up the emergency response mechanisms.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in India on Thursday night swelled to 79 from 68 the day before.

Meanwhile, scientists at the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune have isolated 11 strains of the coronavirus, the government said on Thursday. Still, they will need between 18 months and two years to develop a Covid-19 vaccine even if the clinical trials are expedited.

“Coronavirus was very difficult to isolate but the scientists at NIV Pune have been successful in getting around 11 isolates. The strains are the prerequisite for conducting any research related to viruses," said Raman R. Gangakhedkar, head of the epidemiology and communicable diseases division of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

Gangakhedkar said that some of the Covid-19 patients are being treated with HIV drugs but their efficacy is still not established. The ministry of health and family welfare said that most of the cases recorded in India are travel-associated, with no record of community transmission yet.

“Most of the infected are those who had travelled to the infected countries. They later transmitted the infection to their close relatives and family members, which is local transmission. But we are not in the stage of community transmission yet," said Lav Aggarwal, joint health secretary.

Aggarwal said the government has traced as many as 1,500 contacts of infected patients, including three who have recovered in Kerala. The government is monitoring them continuously across the country.

“All patients are clinically stable. We have not resorted to any specific treatment and are managing them symptomatically," Aggarwal told reporters.

The Union health ministry said India has the requisite testing facilities to screen suspected cases and measures had already been taken before the WHO declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday.

Aggarwal said the private sector is yet to be involved in conducting tests, as there are enough government facilities but decisions will be taken as the situation evolves. “In case of isolation beds, we have had talks with the private sector, and we ask them to collaborate as and when required," he said.

In a measure of relief for tourists, the government clarified that the visas of those foreigners who are already in India will remain valid. The government also said that the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card holders already in India can also stay in India as long as they want. However, Indian immigration will not permit entry into India of those foreign nationals who do not give details of their places of stay and where they plan to visit in India, officials said. This was to ensure efficient tracking of visitors in case they contract the disease later.

Leroy Leo and Sharan Poovanna from Bengaluru contributed to this story.

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