A South Korean church with a messianic leader was identified Friday as a hotbed of coronavirus cases as the outbreak grows in parts of the country.

The leader of the sect, Lee Man-hee, said all gatherings and other outreach have been suspended after health authorities linked Lee's followers to more than two-thirds of all confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea.

Lee denounced the coronavirus as a "devil's deed" to curb the growth of his church, which extols Lee as a prophet-like figure who can decode hidden meanings from the Bible before a coming apocalypse. Critics describe Lee's network as a cult.

Medical workers transport a patient suspected of carrying coronavirus. Photo / AP
Medical workers transport a patient suspected of carrying coronavirus. Photo / AP

Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said more than two-thirds of South Korea's 204 confirmed coronavirus cases are traced to Lee's secretive religious movement, called Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

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KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong told reporters that Shincheonji services, which often gather followers in a crowded spaces, possibly led to mass transmissions.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for a full investigation into transmission clusters at a Shincheonji church in Daegu, in South Korea's southeast, and at a funeral in Cheongdo County.

Daegu, a southeastern city of two-and-a-half million that is the country's fourth largest, emerged as the focus of government efforts to contain the disease known as Covid-19, and Chung promised support to ease a shortage in hospital beds, medical personnel and equipment. Mayor Kwon Young-jin of Daegu has urged residents to stay inside, even wearing masks at home, to stem further infection.

Since members of the church attended the funeral, the Cheongdo hospital reported 15 coronavirus cases, including South Korea's first death from the virus on Thursday. A second coronavirus death, a woman in her 50s under hospital care, was reported Friday, also in Cheongdo.

A confirmed virus patient, is escorted by a medical staffer toward an ambulance at Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, South Korea. Photo / AP
A confirmed virus patient, is escorted by a medical staffer toward an ambulance at Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, South Korea. Photo / AP

Lee, who founded the church in 1984, said the mass infection is "a devil's deed to curb the rapid growth of Shincheonji", according to an internal message carried by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.

Shincheonji said in a public statement Friday that it has shut and disinfected all of its 74 churches nationwide.

The church is believed to have more than 200,000 adherents across the country. Followers equate Lee with the second coming of Jesus who will deliver salvation from an impending end of days.

Passengers wearing face masks ride a subway train in Daegu, South Korea. Photo / AP
Passengers wearing face masks ride a subway train in Daegu, South Korea. Photo / AP

The multiplying caseload in South Korea showed the ease with which the illness can spread. Initial infections were linked to China, but new cases in South Korea and Iran — where there have been four deaths — don't show a clear connection to travel there. In an emerging cluster of illnesses in northern Italy, the first to fall ill met with someone who had returned from China on January 21 without experiencing any symptoms of the new virus, health authorities said.

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The World Health Organisation warned that clusters not directly linked to travel, such as the ones in South Korea and Iran, suggest that time may be running out to contain the outbreak.

"The window of opportunity is still there. But our window of opportunity is narrowing," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "We need to act quickly before it closes completely."

- With AP