The number of deaths from the novel coronavirus has risen to at least 490 in mainland China on Wednesday, while new cases on a Japanese cruise ship, as well as in Hong Kong and in other places showed the increasing spread of the outbreak and renewed attention toward containing it.
Worldwide, the number of cases has crossed 25, 000 with 24,324 confirmed ones on the Chinese mainland.
At least 10 people from the Japanese cruise ship tested positive and were taken to hospitals, while all 3,700 crew and passengers on the ship will be quarantined on board for up to 14 days, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said.
The 10 cases confirmed on the Diamond Princess cruise ship raised Japan's total to 33 cases. The 10 are a Filipino crew member and nine passengers, two Australians, three Japanese, three Hong Kong nationals and an American.
They were among 273 people tested because they had a cough or fever, which are symptoms of the virus, or had close contact with a man who got off the ship in Hong Kong and was infected.
Some tests are still pending. The transmission to each person isn't clear, and the others may have gotten the virus when they got off the ship at other port calls in Vietnam, Taiwan, Kagoshima and Okinawa. The ship returned to Yokohama, near Tokyo, Monday.
Hong Kong testing over 1,800 passengers on cruise ship
Hong Kong is testing over 1,800 passengers and crew on a cruise ship for a coronavirus that originated in Wuhan after some crew members reported having fever and other symptoms. Authorities were not letting anyone leave the ship without permission.
The Chinese-ruled city's health department said on Wednesday 90 percent of the passengers were Hong Kongers and no mainland Chinese were on board.
Previously, three mainland Chinese that had been on the ship between January 19 and 24 were found to have contracted the virus.
The World Dream ship, operated by Dream Cruises, was denied entry in the southern Taiwan port of Kaohsiung on Tuesday. On Monday, the ship visited Taiwan's northern Keelung port.
Hong Kong hospitals workers were on their third day of a strike to demand the border with mainland China be shut completely to ward off the virus, but four new cases without known travel to the mainland indicate the illness is spreading locally in the territory.
The growing caseload "indicates significant risk of community transmission" and could portend a "large-scale" outbreak, said Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch at the Center for Health Protection.
Hospitals in Hong Kong said they had to cut some services due to striking workers' absences. More than 7,000 joined the strike Tuesday, according to the Hospital Authority Employees' Alliance, the strike organiser.
The territory's beleaguered leader, Carrie Lam, criticised the strike and said the government was doing all it could to limit the flow of people across the border. Almost all land and sea links have been closed, but the striking workers want it shut completely.
"Important services, critical operations have been affected," Lam told reporters. "So I’m appealing to those who are taking part in this action: Let’s put the interests of the patients and the entire public health system above all other things."
Rising cases but low fatalities
Thailand confirmed six more cases Tuesday, raising its total to 25. Two are motorcycle taxi drivers who had driven for Chinese tourists. Earlier, a Thai taxi driver was also diagnosed with the virus.
The cases are concerning because they suggest the virus can spread more easily between people than has been suspected.
South Korea raised its total to 18, with the new cases raising concern about the illness spreading from countries other than China.
South Korea’s centres for disease control and prevention said a man who attended a business conference in Singapore met a Malaysian there who had the virus. Another case confirmed Wednesday was the daughter of a woman who got sick after travelling in Thailand.
Dr David Heymann, who led the World Health Organization’s response to the SARS outbreak, said it’s too early to tell when the new coronavirus will peak, but that it appears to still be on the increase.
He said the spike in China’s recent caseload is partly because the tally was expanded to milder cases, not only people with pneumonia. It is not yet considered a pandemic, or worldwide outbreak, which the WHO defines as sustained transmission in at least two world regions.
Heymann said as the new virus starts to spread beyond China, scientists will gain a better understanding of it. "What we will see is the clearer natural history of the disease," he said, as those exposed to the virus "are being traced and watched very closely", he said.
Nevertheless, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries outside China to share more data on infections, saying detailed information has been provided in only 38 percent of cases.
"Without better data, it’s very hard for us to assess how the outbreak is evolving or what impact it could have and to ensure we’re providing the most appropriate recommendations.”
More evacuation flights from Wuhan
With the epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan, cut off by rail, air and road to try to contain the virus, the US and other countries were organising more evacuation flights for their citizens still in the central Chinese city.
The latest mainland China figures showed an increase of 65 deaths from the previous day, all the new deaths from Wuhan. The number of new cases increased to 24,324, a rise of 3,887 from the previous day. Outside mainland China, at least 180 cases have been confirmed, including two fatalities, one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
To treat the thousands of patients, China rushed to build hospitals and converted a gymnasium, exhibition hall and cultural centre in Wuhan.
Patients were being moved into a new, 1,000-bed hospital with prefabricated wards and isolation rooms. A 1,500-bed hospital also specially built opens in days. The hospitals made from converted public spaces to treat patients with mild symptoms have a total of 3,400 beds, the simple cots placed in tight rows in cavernous rooms without any barriers between them.
One man, Fang Bin, said he saw wards so crowded during a visit to the city's No. 5 Hospital on Saturday that some patients were forced to sit on the ground.
"There are too many patients, it's overcrowded," Fang said. He said he was taken from his home and questioned by police after he posted a video of what he saw online.
More Chinese cities shut down as virus death toll rises
Some 56 million people in Hubei have been under virtual lockdown since last week, with its capital, Wuhan, at the heart of the health emergency.
In Hangzhou, some 175 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, green fences blocked streets near the headquarters of Chinese tech giant Alibaba as a fighter jet circled overhead.
Alibaba, one of the world's most valuable companies, appeared shut down, while deliverymen moved in and out of the nearby fenced-in residential areas to drop off groceries. Many people were also seen going out.
The firm is inside one of three districts where some three million people were told this week that only one person per household would be allowed outside every two days to buy necessities.
"Please don't go out, don't go out, don't go out," blared a message on a loudspeaker urging people to wear masks, wash their hands regularly and report any people who are from Hubei, a common fear in other parts of the country that people from the province might infect others.
At least three other cities in eastern Zhejiang province –– Taizhou, Wenzhou and parts of Ningbo –– have imposed the same measures, affecting some 18 million people.
Similar policies were encouraged by authorities in two cities as far as China's northeasternmost province, Heilongjiang, and a handful of others along the east coast.
In Henan province, which borders Hubei, a district in the city of Zhumadian decided that only one person could leave each household every five days. Residents there have been offered cash rewards for informing on people from Hubei.