BEIJING (AFP) - China reported its biggest single-day jump in novel coronavirus deaths on Thursday (Jan 30), as global fears deepened with more infections confirmed overseas, including three Japanese evacuated from the outbreak's epicentre.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which initially downplayed the severity of a disease that has now killed 170 in China, planned a meeting on Thursday on whether to declare the epidemic a global emergency.
Regardless of any WHO declaration, governments, companies and people around the world continued to ramp up efforts to try and contain the mysterious illness that is believed to have emerged from an animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Many governments have urged their citizens not to visit China, while some have banned entry for travellers from Wuhan.
At least 15 countries have reported infections.
Airlines began cancelling flights to and from China on Wednesday, and more did so on Thursday.
China's government has also taken extraordinary steps to arrest the virus's spread, including effectively quarantining more than 50 million people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province.
The government on Thursday reported 38 new deaths in the preceding 24 hours, the highest one-day total since the virus was detected late last year.
All but one of the new deaths were in Hubei.
The number of confirmed new cases also grew steadily to 7,711, the National Health Commission said. Another 81,000 people were under observation for possible infection.
The pathogen is believed to have been spawned in a market that sold wild game and spread far and wide by a Chinese New Year holiday season in which hundreds of millions of Chinese travel domestically or abroad.
'TRULY NEW SITUATION'
Thousands of foreigners have been trapped in Wuhan since it was sealed off last week.
Japan and the United States on Wednesday became the first countries to organise airlifts out of Wuhan for their citizens.
Australia, New Zealand, Singapore were among others planning similar operations.
But Japan on Thursday reported that three people who were aboard the first evacuation flight had tested positive for the virus after landing back home.
Two of the three infected passengers showed no symptoms, according to Japanese authorities, underscoring the difficulty detecting the coronavirus.
Compounding fears, Japan was allowing the arrivals - more than 400 have been repatriated after a second flight landed in Tokyo on Thursday - to "self-quarantine".
The government said it could not legally require people to be tested or quarantined, and two people on the first flight refused testing.
That's despite Japanese officials already confirming two cases in which patients tested positive without having visited China.
In contrast, other countries organising evacuations said they were all planning on quarantining people.
"We are in a truly new situation," Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told parliament as his government faces criticism for its quarantine strategy
The WHO also has come under fire after it last week decided not to declare a global health emergency.
A WHO meeting on Thursday will decide whether to declare an emergency - which could lead to travel or trade barriers.
"The whole world needs to take action," Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters.
The virus bears a close similarity to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), which also began in China and eventually killed nearly 800 people worldwide in 2002-03.
Major airlines that have suspended or reduced service to China include British Airways, German flag carrier Lufthansa, American Airlines, KLM, and United.
Chinese efforts to halt the virus have seen the suspension of classes nationwide and an extension of the Chinese New Year holiday.
China's football body said Thursday it was postponing "all levels and all types of football matches across the country", including the top-tier Chinese Super League.
Asian stock markets tumbled again Thursday with fears that business disruptions in the "world's factory" would upset global supply chains and dent profits.
Toyota, IKEA, Starbucks, Tesla, McDonald's and tech giant Foxconn were among corporate giants to temporarily freeze production or close large numbers of outlets in China.
US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the coronavirus posed a fresh risk to the world economy.
"There will clearly be implications at least in the near term for Chinese output and I would guess for some of their close neighbours," he said.