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Pope Francis has taken ill and cancelled an event at a Rome basilica as coronavirus locks down towns in northern Italy.

The pontiff had earlier shown solidarity with coronavirus sufferers on Ash Wednesday, and, while mask free, took time to shake hands and kiss worshippers at the Vatican.

After falling ill, he is carrying out the rest of his schedule in his residence, the Vatican said on Thursday.

"Because of a slight indisposition, he preferred to stay inside Santa Marta," the Vatican said, referring to the Vatican guest house where the 83-year-old pontiff lives.

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"All other commitments will go ahead regularly," spokesman Matteo Bruni said.

It comes as the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto are locked down, with Italy reporting more than 500 infections and 14 deaths as of Thursday afternoon.

The pope appeared to have a cold and spoke with a slightly hoarse voice at his general audience on Wednesday and coughed during an afternoon Ash Wednesday service in a Rome church.

Speaking during his audience in St Peter’s Square, he said, “I wish, again, to express my closeness to those who are ill with coronavirus and to health-care workers who are caring for them.”

The Vatican released a picture of the pope and Cardinal Antonio Tagle, a Filipino who has just started in a new post in the Vatican, meeting on Thursday morning with members of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, an international environmental group.

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The meeting took place in a building steps from the guest house.

Francis is missing a part of one lung, which  was removed when he was in his early 20s in his native Buenos Aires after he suffered from tuberculosis, according to biographer Austen Ivereigh.

He also suffers some leg pain due to sciatica, for which he undergoes regular physical therapy and which explains his occasional difficulty climbing steps.

But he is in generally good health and has been able to endure about four gruelling international trips each year since his election in 2013.

The pope had been due to go to the Basilica of St John's in Lateran on Thursday morning for a Lenten service with Roman priests.

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Some Lent Ash Wednesday services were cancelled or limited in areas of northern Italy hit by the spread of coronavirus.

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