Novel coronavirus deaths overtake SARS toll, 66 more cases on Japan ship

  • 10 Feb 2020

The number of people killed by the 2019-nCoV has risen by 97 to 908 in 24 hours, crossing the fatality toll of 774 people believed to have died in the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic.

Passengers stand on balconies on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with over 3,600 people quarantined onboard due to fears of the novel coronavirus, at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port on February 10, 2020. ( AFP )

China reported a rise in new virus cases on Monday, possibly denting optimism that its disease control measures like isolating major cities might be working, while Japan reported dozens of new cases aboard a quarantined cruise ship.

The mainland death toll rose by 97 to 908, and 3,062 new cases were reported on the mainland over the 24 hours through midnight Sunday. 

That was up 15 percent from Saturday and broke a string of daily declines. 

A government spokesman had said on Sunday those declines showed containment measures were working.

While the death toll has climbed steadily, new cases have declined since Wednesday's single-day peak of nearly 3,900 people nationwide.

On Sunday, the number of new cases was just over 2,600.

Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme, said the "stable period" of the outbreak "may reflect the impact of the control measures."

Over 40,000 people in China have now been infected by the virus, believed to have emerged late last year in Hubei's capital Wuhan, where residents are struggling to get daily supplies.

The epidemic has prompted the government to lock down whole cities as anger mounts over its handling of the crisis, especially after a whistleblowing doctor fell victim to the virus.

With much of the country still not back at work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, cities including financial hub Shanghai ordered residents to wear masks in public.

Japan ship cases

The operator of a cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama, near Tokyo, said an additional 66 cases were found aboard. That is in addition to 70 reported earlier.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the Japanese government was considering testing all 3,711 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess, which would require them to remain aboard until results are available. Health authorities are scrambling to deliver medicine requested by more than 600 passengers.

"We are doing the utmost to keep everyone in good health," Kato said.

Hubei lockdown impacting food supplies

Millions of people are under lockdown in Hubei in a bid to stop the virus spreading.

"The local government asked people to stay at home as much as possible, but there is not enough goods in shops each time we get there, so we have to go out frequently," a woman in Wuhan, surnamed Wei, said. 

Wang Bin, from the ministry of commerce, said challenges included poor logistics, price increases and labour shortages.

"It is difficult for the market supply to reach normal levels," he admitted at a press conference Sunday.

In Hubei, there's a five-day supply of pork and eggs, and a three-day supply of vegetables, he said.

China's central bank said from Monday it would offer up a $43 billion boost to help businesses involved in fighting the epidemic.

Melissa Santos, a student from the Dominican Republic living in Wuhan, said she "worried" about going out to buy food for the first time in a week.

"I have read that the virus can be transmitted very fast, in a few seconds," she said.

Public anger over doctor death

China drew international condemnation for covering up cases during the SARS outbreak, whereas the WHO has praised measures it has taken this time.

But anger erupted after the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor, whom the police silenced when he flagged the emerging virus in December.

The doctor, 34, died early Friday, after contracting the virus from a patient.

Chinese academics were among those angered by his death, with at least two open letters posted on social media demanding more freedoms.

"Put an end to the restrictions on freedom of speech," one letter demanded.

'Percolating along'

Beijing responded by sending its anti-graft body to launch an investigation, attempting to ease the anger.

But Ian Lipkin, a professor at Columbia University who worked with China on the SARS outbreak, said earlier intervention could have made a key difference.

"This virus was percolating along without anyone realising it was there," he said.

If the quarantine measures have been effective, the epidemic should peak within the next fortnight, Lipkin added, but he warned there is also the risk of a "bump" in numbers when people return to work.

Global fears

Wuhan has converted public buildings into makeshift medical centres and built two new field hospitals.

But Wuhan resident Chen Yiping said her 61-year-old mother has severe symptoms and is still waiting for a hospital bed because "there are too many people in need of treatment".

The first foreign victim in China was confirmed this week when an American diagnosed with the virus died in Wuhan.

The only fatalities outside the mainland have been a Chinese man in the Philippines and a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong.

Seventy people on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan's coast have tested positive, with all passengers told to stay inside their cabins to prevent further infection.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China while major airlines have suspended flights, and Air China cancelled some of its flights to the US.

The British government declared the virus a "serious and imminent threat to public health," which it said gives authorities powers to forcibly detain infected people if necessary.

The change comes after a British man who caught the virus in Singapore in January appeared to be linked to at least seven other confirmed cases in Europe.

Five Britons, including a 9-year-old boy, contracted the virus in the French Alpine ski town of Contamines-Montjoie after staying in the same chalet as the British man.

French medical authorities tested 45 children and their families on Sunday from the area and temporarily closed three schools where the boy spent time.

EU emergency talks

The European Union will host an extraordinary meeting of health ministers on Thursday, along with a WHO envoy, to discuss the novel coronavirus outbreak.

So far, only around 30 cases of the new strain have been detected in Europe, but the WHO warns that cases outside China could accelerate.

"Now is the time to join forces to stop this epidemic," said European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic.

The EU ministers discuss ways to prevent the virus' spread and "adopt conclusions in relation to the EU response to the novel coronavirus outbreak".

Last week, German Health Minister Jens Spahn suggested at a meeting with his French counterpart Agnes Buzyn that Europe impose restrictions on travellers from China.

The United States has already banned the arrival of foreign nationals who have visited China recently.

But for any such measure to be imposed in Europe, the 27 EU members would have to coordinate the decision since most of them are in the Schengen passport-free travel area.