Tens of millions of people in Hubei and surrounding provinces are now facing restrictions on their movement as authorities try to slow the spread of the virus.

This photo taken on February 5, 2020 shows the first batch of patients displaying mild symptoms of the novel coronavirus as they arrive at an exhibition centre converted into a hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province.
This photo taken on February 5, 2020 shows the first batch of patients displaying mild symptoms of the novel coronavirus as they arrive at an exhibition centre converted into a hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. (AFP)

China scrambled to find bed space for thousands of newly infected patients on Thursday as the death toll from the novel coronavirus soared to 563.

More than 28,000 people are now known to be infected nationwide in the outbreak that has spiralled into a global health emergency.

Two dozen countries now have confirmed cases of the coronavirus that emerged from a market selling exotic animals at the end of last year.

On Thursday, thousands of people were stranded aboard two cruise ships in Asia, with tests finding that 20 people had contracted the virus in one of the vessels.

At the Chinese epicentre of the epidemic in Hubei province, the locked-down city of Wuhan was due to open a second field hospital, offering 1,600 beds.

The first hospital, with 1,000 beds, opened earlier this week and authorities said they were converting public buildings into temporary medical facilities to deal with the influx of sick people.

The city of 11 million is facing a "severe" lack of beds, said Hu Lishan, a senior official in Wuhan, noting that 8,182 patients admitted to 28 hospitals that have a total of 8,254 beds.

There is also a shortage of equipment and materials, Hu told reporters.

The central government has announced measures intended to ensure the supply of vital medical resources, with tax breaks for manufacturers of equipment needed to fight the epidemic.

"We must make all-out efforts across the country to meet the need for essential medical supplies and medical professionals in Hubei Province," Premier Li Keqiang said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

BGI Group, a genome sequencing company based in southern China, said it opened on Wednesday a lab in Wuhan able to test up to 10,000 people per day for the virus.

Cities hunker down

Tens of millions of people in Hubei and surrounding provinces are now facing restrictions on their movement as authorities try to slow the spread of the virus.

They include residents of Hangzhou, a city just 175 kilometres from Shanghai, where fences block streets and loudspeakers tell people: "Don't go out!"

In some cities, even in the far north of the country, inhabitants are being offered cash rewards to inform on people who come from Hubei.

In Beijing – where streets remain eerily quiet and businesses are shuttered – restaurants have been barred from accepting reservations for parties.

In Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province which borders Hubei, pharmacists must send reports to the authorities on anyone buying fever or cough medicine. The city has also limited the number of outings per family.

Cruise ship infections

While the death toll continues to rise, and now includes two people outside mainland China, health experts have stressed that at two percent, 2019-nCoV is far less deadly than the SARS pathogen, which is from the same coronavirus family and killed around 10 percent of the people it infected during a 2002-3 outbreak.

But panic has risen worldwide with countries barring arrivals from China and governments warning against travel to the country, while airlines have halted flights.

Workers wearing protective gear prepare to transfer passengers, who tested positive for coronavirus, from the cruise ship Diamond Princess to a hospital, after the ship arrived at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan on February 6, 2020.
Workers wearing protective gear prepare to transfer passengers, who tested positive for coronavirus, from the cruise ship Diamond Princess to a hospital, after the ship arrived at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan on February 6, 2020. (Reuters)

Twenty cruise ship passengers test positive

At least 20 people on one cruise ship off the Japanese coast have tested positive for the new coronavirus, with thousands more staring at a two-week seaborne isolation.

In Hong Kong, 3,600 passengers and crew spent the night marooned on the cruise ship World Dream as authorities conducted health checks after three former passengers tested positive for the virus.

Italy announced that passengers on every international flight would be scanned for fever.

The World Health Organization, which has declared a global health emergency, has called for $675 million to fight the novel coronavirus.

"Our message to the international community is invest today or pay more later," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that the funding appeal was "much less than the bill we will have to pay if we do not invest in preparedness now".

Saudi Arabia bars citizens from travel to China

Saudi Arabia on Thursday barred its citizens and residents from traveling to China amid the new virus outbreak.

The kingdom's General Directorate of Passports said the measure was in response to the new virus believed to have stemmed from central China.

It warned that any residents of the kingdom who violate this order will not be allowed to return to Saudi Arabia. 

It also said that regulatory provisions on travel documents would be applied to citizens who violate the travel ban, without further elaboration. 

The statement was carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

Source: AFP