China virus death toll surges

A woman wearing a face mask walks through a device that sprays disinfectant at an entrance to a residential compound in Tianjin, China, on Tuesday as officials ramp up measures to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus in the country
A woman wearing a face mask walks through a device that sprays disinfectant at an entrance to a residential compound in Tianjin, China, on Tuesday as officials ramp up measures to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus in the country
Image: STRINGER/CNSPHOTO/REUTERS

The death toll from the new coronavirus outbreak surged past 1,000 on Tuesday as the World Health Organisation warned that infected people who have not travelled to China could ignite a “bigger fire” in the epidemic.

The rise came after President Xi Jinping made a rare visit to a hospital in Beijing, wearing protective gear as he chatted with medical workers and patients.

An advance team for a WHO-led international mission arrived in China as the country struggles to contain a viral epidemic that has now infected more than 42,000 and reached 25 countries.

Another 108 deaths were reported on Tuesday — the first triple-digit daily rise since the virus emerged in late December.

The first death was reported on January 11, but the toll has increased a thousandfold in just a month, reaching 1,016, though the mortality rate remains relatively low at 2.4%.

Chinese authorities have locked down millions of people in a number of cities, while several governments have banned arrivals from China and major airlines have suspended flights in a bid to keep the disease away from their shores.

But the case of a British man who passed on the virus to at least 11 other people — without having been in China — has raised fears of a new phase of contagion abroad.

Most cases overseas have involved people who had been in Wuhan, the quarantined central Chinese city where the virus emerged late last year, or people infected by others who had been at the epicentre.

But the Briton — dubbed a “super-spreader” by some British media — caught the virus while attending a conference in Singapore and then passed it on to several compatriots while on holiday in the French Alps, before finally being diagnosed back in Britain.

Of those infected, five were hospitalised in France, five in Britain and one on the Spanish island of Mallorca.

“The detection of this small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.

“But for now it’s only a spark. Our objective remains containment. We call on all countries to use the window of opportunity we have to prevent a bigger fire,” Tedros said.

Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said it was “way too early” to call the Singapore conference a “super-spreading event”.

“It is always a concern when people come together and then move apart, and we have to have risk management procedures associated with that, but you can’t shut down the world either,” Ryan said.

As the number of cases in Britain doubled to eight, the government called the novel coronavirus a “serious and imminent threat”, and said anyone with the disease could be forcibly quarantined if deemed a threat to public health.

The biggest cluster of cases outside China is aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship moored off Japan, where 135 people have been positively diagnosed.

The ship has been in quarantine since arriving off the Japanese coast early last week after the virus was detected in a former passenger who disembarked last month in Hong Kong.

More than 100 people were evacuated from a 35-storey Hong Kong housing block Tuesday after two residents in different apartments tested positive for the virus. AFP

 

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