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Vatican says pope's symptoms point to simple cold

Pope Francis caught a cold but reportedly tested negative for the coronavirus (AFP Photo/Alberto PIZZOLI) (AFP)

Vatican City (AFP) - The Vatican said on Tuesday that Pope Francis was still suffering from a cold and not exhibiting other symptoms, after a report said he had tested negative for the novel coronavirus.

Italy's Messaggero newspaper reported that the 83-year-old pontiff, who has been cancelling events since last Wednesday, had been tested for the virus as a precaution.

Without directly confirming the report, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement that "the cold diagnosed (in the pope) was running its course, without symptoms attributable to other pathologies".

Pope Francis cancelled a Lent retreat for the first time in his papacy on Sunday, after axing all public meetings and retreating to his Vatican residence last week.

"Unfortunately, a cold forced me not to take part this year," Pope Francis told a crowd on Saint Peter's Square after suffering two coughing fits while reciting Sunday's Angelus Prayer.

The new coronavirus has spread from China across much of the world and Italy is among the worst affected, with over 2,500 cases and 79 deaths.

The Argentine-born pope has been seen coughing and blowing his nose for days.

The pope was tested for the disease last Wednesday, the newspaper report said, and the results took several days to come in.

- Cancelled meetings -

The Vatican has been projecting an image of calm in the meantime, releasing a pre-recorded message from the pope on Tuesday and stressing that he is still scheduled to deliver his Angelus Prayer on Sunday.

But the vast crowds that usually throng Saint Peter's Square and the queues that snake in front of the museums are gone.

The Vatican is set to supply staff working in close contact with tourists with masks and gloves, the Messaggero reported.

The pope's planned meeting at the end of March in Assisi with some 2,000 youngsters from 115 counties has been postponed until November because of contagion fears.

Another event with students from around the world that had been scheduled for May has been pushed back to October for the same reason.

The Vatican itself has had at least one coronavirus-related scare.

The offices of a French priest working at the Vatican's ministry of communication were disinfected on Monday, following the quarantine of his community of 20 priests from Rome's Church of St Louis of the French.

They had been in contact with a priest who returned to Paris in mid-February and tested positive for the virus last week.

The quarantine was lifted on Monday after the threat of any further infections were ruled out and the church said it will re-open on Wednesday.

- Elderly population -

The pope has enjoyed a life of good health despite losing part of a lung as a young man and suffering from sciatica -- a nerve condition that causes pain in his hip.

He rarely cancels appointments and normally takes extra time to mingle with supporters and the faithful.

Vatican experts said fear over the virus in the tiny city state was particularly acute because many residents were elderly.

Among those feared to be most at risk is retired ex-pope Benedict XVI, 92, who lives in a small former monastery inside the Vatican.

Benedict in 2013 became the first pope in 600 years to resign, citing health reasons.

The Swiss Guards, who control those who come in and out of the Vatican and move around its grounds, have tightened checks at its five gates and reduced access to Benedict's home, the Stampa daily said.