VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis announced on Sunday that a cold he is suffering from will force him to skip a week-long Lenten spiritual retreat with senior Vatican officials that had been due to start later in the day.

The pope made the surprise announcement to thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square during his first public appearance since last Wednesday, when he was seen coughing and sneezing.

“Unfortunately a cold will force me not take part this year (in the retreat). I will follow the meditations from here,” he said. It is the first time that Francis has missed the annual retreat south of Rome since his election in March, 2013.

The Vatican had previously said only that he was suffering from a “slight indisposition”.

He coughed several times while making his brief address on Sunday and sounded like he had a stuffy nose.

The pope has taken ill at a time when Italy is battling a surging outbreak of the potentially deadly coronavirus. His spokesman Matteo Bruni dismissed on Friday speculation that Francis was anything more than slightly unwell.

“There is no evidence that would lead to diagnosing anything but a mild indisposition,” he said.

Italy has registered more than 1,100 confirmed cases of coronavirus since Feb. 20 and at least 29 deaths — the worst such contagion in Europe.

Francis is missing a part of one lung. It was removed when he was in his early 20s in his native Buenos Aires after an illness.

Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Crispian Balmer