Wuhan virus: Death toll jumps to 106, nearly 1,300 new cases as Chinese citizens urged to reconsider overseas travel

A police takes the temperature of a driver at a checkpoint on a street on the outskirts of Wuhan on Jan 27, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WUHAN (REUTERS, AFP, XINHUA, ANN) - The United States warned against travel to China on Monday (Jan 27) and Canada issued a more narrow travel warning as the death toll from the spreading coronavirus passed 100, with tens of millions stranded during the biggest holiday of the year and global markets rattled.

The health commission of China's Hubei province said on Tuesday that 100 people had died from the virus as of Jan 27, according to an online statement, up from the previous toll of 76, with the number of confirmed cases in the province rising to 2,714.

Other fatalities have been reported elsewhere in China, including the first in Beijing, bringing the death toll to 106 so far, according to the People's Daily. The state newspaper put the total number of confirmed cases in China at 4,515, though some experts suspect a much higher number.

China's National Immigration Administration encouraged citizens to reconsider the timing of overseas travel to reduce cross-border movement to help contain the new coronavirus, it said in a statement published on its official WeChat account on Tuesday.

China also postponed the start of the spring semester for schools and universities across the country. Students are currently on holiday for the Lunar New Year and the education ministry did not provide a date for teaching to resume. But a statement from the ministry said teaching institutions would reopen on a case-by-case basis.

School administrators had been instructed to "require students not to go out, not to gather, and not to hold or participate in centralised activities", the statement added.

Meanwhile, China sent nearly 6,000 medical workers from across the country to Hubei Province, a health official said Tuesday.

Chinese researchers have selected 30 existing drugs, biologically active natural products and traditional Chinese medicines which may have therapeutic effects on the novel coronavirus for further tests, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

The researchers suggested these drug candidates be considered for the clinical treatment of pneumonia patients infected with the coronavirus.

The team will carry out further tests on these candidates to provide guidance for clinical studies and treatments of the novel coronavirus, said the CAS.

China Daily reported that a new broad-spectrum antivirus spray has been put into use at the emergency wards of Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, protecting medical staff from the new coronavirus.

The spray has played a positive role in the treatment of early-stage infections, the centre's head, Xu Jianqing said. However, the new medicine has not yet acquired the license for market approval, so it cannot be legitimately used for the clinical treatment of patients.

Meanwhile, researchers estimated on Tuesday that the outbreak will afflict a minimum of tens of thousands of people and will last at least several months.

"The best case scenario, you would have something... where we go through the spring into the summer, and then it dies down," David Fisman, a professor at the University of Toronto told AFP.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump offered China whatever help it needed, while the State Department said Americans should "reconsider" visiting all of China due to the virus.

Canada, which has two confirmed cases of the virus and is investigating 19 more potential cases, warned its citizens to avoid travel to China's Hubei province, at the heart of the outbreak.

Authorities in Hubei province are taking increasing flak from the public over their initial response to the virus.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the city of Wuhan, epicentre of the outbreak, to encourage medical workers and promise reinforcements.

Visiting Wuhan in blue protective suit and mask, Li praised medics, said 2,500 more workers would join them in the next two days, and visited the site of a new hospital to be built in days.

The most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak, Li was shown on state TV leading medical workers in chants of "Wuhan jiayou!" - an exhortation to keep their strength up.

China's ambassador to the United Nations, following a meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday, said "the Chinese government attaches paramount importance to prevention and control of the epidemic, and President Xi Jinping has given important instructions... China has been working with the international community in the spirit of openness, transparency and scientific coordination," he said.

Guterres said in a statement, "The UN appreciates China's effort, has full confidence in China's ability of controlling the outbreak, and stands ready to provide any support and assistance."

A woman wearing a protective mask is seen in a small shop in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Wuhan on Jan 27, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

On China's heavily censored social media, officials have faced mounting anger over the virus, which is thought to have originated from a market where wildlife was sold illegally.

Some criticised the governor of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, after he corrected himself twice during a news conference over the number of face masks being produced. "If he can mess up the data multiple times, no wonder the disease has spread so severely," said one user of the Weibo social media platform.

In rare public self-criticism, Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang said the city's management of the crisis was "not good enough" and indicated he was willing to resign.

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The central Chinese city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under travel curbs.

Elsewhere in China, people from the region faced questioning about their movements. "Hubei people are getting discriminated against," a Wuhan resident complained on Weibo.

Cases linked to people who travelled from Wuhan have been confirmed in a dozen countries, from Japan to the United States, where authorities said they had 110 people under investigation in 26 states. Sri Lanka was the latest to confirm a case, while Thailand on Tuesday confirmed six more cases among visitors from China, bringing the country's total to 14 cases, a health official said.

Five of the new cases, aged 6 to 70 years, came from Hubei province and are part of the same family, the deputy director-general of the Department of Disease Control, Dr Tanarak Plipat, told reporters.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (centre) wearing a mask and protective suit speaks to medical workers as he visits the Jinyintan hospital in Wuhan on Jan 27, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

Investors are worried about the impact. The consensus is that in the short term, economic output will be hit as authorities limit travel and extend the week-long New Year holiday - when millions traditionally travel by rail, road and plane - by three days to limit spread of the virus.

Asian and European shares tumbled, with Japan's Nikkei average sliding 2 per cent, its biggest one-day fall in five months.

"China is the biggest driver of global growth so this couldn't have started in a worse place," said Alec Young, FTSE Russell's managing director of global markets research.

During the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), which originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally, air passenger demand in Asia plunged 45 per cent. The travel industry is more reliant on Chinese travellers now.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which has had eight cases, banned entry to people who had visited Hubei recently.

Some European tour operators cancelled trips to China, while governments around the world worked on repatriating nationals.

Japan's government is sending a chartered flight to Wuhan on Tuesday night to evacuate its nationals wishing to return home.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters the flight can carry around 200 passengers, but added about 650 Japanese citizens are hoping to come back to Japan.
Motegi said the government is making arrangements for additional flights that will leave for Wuhan as early as Wednesday.

South Korea announced plans to send charter flights this week. The planes will arrive in the city as early as Thursday.

Officially known as 2019-nCoV, the newly identified coronavirus can cause pneumonia, but it is still too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads.

"What we know about this virus is that transmission occurs through human contact but we are speaking of close contact, i.e. less than a metre," said Jerome Salomon, a senior official with France's health ministry.

"Crossing someone (infected) in the street poses no threat," he said. "The risk is low when you spend a little time near that person and becomes higher when you spend a lot of time near that person."

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

The remarks were made by Li Xingwang at a press conference in Beijing, where he also said mild coronavirus symptoms do not present as pneumonia, but just slight fever.

Separately, Jiao Yahui, of the Bureau of Medical Administration at the NHC, said difficulties encountered by patients in accessing hospital beds for treating the virus have been alleviated, but protective suits are still in short supply.

The World Health Organisation's director-general said on Tuesday he is confident in China's ability to control and contain the spread of coronavirus, according to state news agency Xinhua.

At a meeting with authorities in Beijing, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he approved of the Chinese government's measures to curb the outbreak so far, Xinhua reported.

Tedros also said he does not advocate the evacuation of foreign nationals currently in China, and urged people to stay calm.

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