Wuhan virus: Death toll in China hits 132, number of cases nearing 6,000

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Police officers at an expressway toll station in Xianning, a city bordering Wuhan in Hubei province, China, on Jan 24, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) - The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in China rose to 132 as health authorities at the epicentre of the epidemic reported another 840 confirmed cases, even as Beijing reiterated its confidence in containing the disease.

The number of people confirmed to be infected in China soared to 5,974 on Wednesday (Jan 29), the national health commission said.

The health body said it was also monitoring more than 9,000 suspected cases of the virus.

Fears of the spreading virus led airlines to reduce flights to China and global companies to restrict employee travel to the country.

The Hubei province health authority said in a statement early on Wednesday that a further 25 people had died as of end-Tuesday.

The virus emerged late last year in Wuhan, Hubei's capital and a major transportation hub, and much of the province has been under virtual lockdown as China seeks to contain the virus to stop it from spreading further.

With Hubei's latest figures, the total number of confirmed cases in China surpasses that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic in 2003, which infected 5,327 people in China and infected over 8,000 people worldwide.

The flu-like virus has spread overseas to more than a dozen countries.

None of the confirmed deaths to date have happened outside China.

However, confirmations of person-to-person transmission in Germany, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan - as opposed to an infected traveller from China - have heightened concern.

In Germany, four people from the same company were infected in one of the first cases of person-to-person transmission outside China.

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A family in the United Arab Emirates, arriving from Wuhan, has been diagnosed with a case, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

Wuhan is racing to build two dedicated hospitals to treat patients, with the first 1,000-bed facility to be completed on Feb 3. The capacity of the second will be expanded from 1,300 to 1,600 beds, the official People's Daily reported on Wednesday.

Known as "2019-nCoV", the newly identified coronavirus can cause pneumonia and, like other respiratory infections, it spreads between people in droplets from coughs and sneezes.

It is too early to know what its death rate will be, since there are likely to be many cases of milder disease going undetected.

"The virus is a devil and we cannot let the devil hide," state television quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping as saying during a meeting with World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing on Tuesday.

"China will strengthen international cooperation and welcomes the WHO participation in virus prevention... China is confident of winning the battle against the virus."

China's assurances failed to calm investors, however, and health authorities around the world continued to step up efforts to stop the virus from spreading on their shores.

The United States said it was expanding screening of arrivals from China from five to 20 airports and would consider imposing further travel curbs.

"All options for dealing with infectious disease spread have to be on the table, including travel restrictions," said US Health Secretary Alex Azar.

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The White House on Tuesday opted not to suspend flights from China to the US as it discussed ways to deal with the outbreak, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The Trump administration told US airlines after a meeting that it was not taking the step of cancelling flights, airline and government officials told Reuters.

The administration is holding daily meetings on the coronavirus and has considered a wide range of potential options.

From France to Japan, governments were organising evacuations, while Hong Kong - scene of anti-China unrest for months - planned to suspend rail and ferry links with the mainland.

The US Embassy in Beijing said a chartered plane would pick up its consular staff on Wednesday.

The European Commission said it would help fund two aircraft to fly European Union citizens home, with 250 French nationals leaving on the first flight.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Wednesday that Kuala Lumpur was in talks with China to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan. A total of 78 Malaysians are currently in Wuhan, he said.

The Philippines will repatriate Filipinos who plan to leave Wuhan city and the rest of Hubei province. The Department of Foreign Affairs is making available flights from Hubei, it said in a statement. Upon arrival in the Philippines, Filipino repatriates will be subject to 14 days of mandatory quarantine, it said.

Australia will help some citizens leave Hubei province, and quarantine them on Christmas Island, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday following a briefing by the Chinese government.

United Airlines said it was suspending some flights between the US and China for a week from Saturday due to a "significant decline in demand".

British Airways suspended bookings on its website for direct flights from London to Beijing and Shanghai until March, after warnings over travel to China due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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BA.com, the airline's website, shows no direct flights to China are available in January and February. A spokeswoman for the airline said on Wednesday it was "assessing the situation".

Qantas Airways Chief Executive Alan Joyce said it was too early for the airline to quantify the financial impact of China's coronavirus epidemic on its business but it was reviewing whether to end Beijing flights early.

Russia's Urals Airlines said it had suspended some services to Europe including Paris and Rome.
The airline, based in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, was halting flights to Munich, Paris and Rome as well as the Japanese city of Sapporo until the end of winter, it said in a statement.
Those flights had been affected because they are popular with Chinese tourist groups, the airline said in the statement posted on VKontakte, Russia's largest social media network.

As countries, including the US, scramble to find a vaccine, Australia successfully replicated the coronavirus, in what scientists said would be a "game changer" in the fight against the deadly epidemic.

China agreed that the WHO could send international experts to Wuhan as soon as possible to increase understanding of the coronavirus and guide the global response to the outbreak, the UN agency said on Tuesday.

A major scientific database run by China's Tsinghua University made its contents available free of charge from Wednesday in order to help researchers work from home.

An expert at China's National Health Commission said on Tuesday that one week is sufficient for a recovery from mild coronavirus symptoms.

The virus could reach its peak in around 10 days, a top Chinese government expert said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a drug store in Beijing will be fined three million yuan (S$590,000) for hiking the price of face masks by almost six times the online price, the Beijing municipal market regulator said on Wednesday.

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