Monday Feb 10, 2020
BEIJING: The number of deaths from China's new coronavirus epidemic jumped past 900 on Monday after the hardest-hit province of Hubei reported 91 new fatalities.
The National Health Commission confirmed infections in China's coronavirus outbreak has reached 40,171 nationwide with more than 3,000 new cases reported.
In its daily update, Hubei's health commission also confirmed another 2,618 new cases in the central province, where the outbreak emerged in December.
The commission said there had been 97 new deaths from the virus — with 91 in hardest-hit Hubei province — bringing the national toll to 908.
The new virus is believed to have emerged last year in a market that sells wild animals in Hubei's capital Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak, before spreading across the country.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said Saturday that the number of cases being reported daily in China was "stabilising", although the health body warned it was too early to say if the virus had peaked.
A WHO "international expert mission" left late Sunday for China, the agency's director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter.
The only confirmed fatalities outside the mainland are a Chinese man in the Philippines and a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong.
The toll has overtaken the global number of deaths caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which killed 774 people in 2002-03.
The epidemic has prompted the government to lock down whole cities as anger mounts over its handling of the crisis — especially after a whistleblowing doctor fell victim to the virus.
With much of the country still not back at work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, cities including financial hub Shanghai ordered residents to wear masks in public.
Millions of people are under lockdown in Hubei in a bid to stop the virus spreading.
"The local government asked people to stay at home as much as possible, but there are not enough goods in shops each time we get there, so we have to go out frequently," a woman in Wuhan, surnamed Wei, told AFP.
China's central bank said from Monday it would make 300 billion yuan ($43 billion) available in special loans to banks to help businesses involved in fighting the epidemic.
China drew international condemnation for covering up cases during the SARS outbreak, whereas the WHO has praised measures it has taken this time.
But anger erupted after the death of a Wuhan doctor who police silenced when he flagged the emerging virus in December.
The doctor, 34, died early Friday, after contracting the virus from a patient.
Chinese academics were among those angered by his death, with at least two open letters posted on social media demanding more freedoms.
"Put an end to the restrictions on freedom of speech," one letter demanded.
Beijing responded by sending its anti-graft body to launch an investigation, attempting to ease the anger.
But Ian Lipkin — a professor at Columbia University who worked with China on the SARS outbreak — said earlier intervention could have made a key difference.
"This virus was percolating along without anyone realising it was there," he said.
If the quarantine measures have been effective, the epidemic should peak within the next fortnight, Lipkin added — but he warned there is also the risk of a "bump" in numbers when people return to work.
Wuhan has converted public buildings into makeshift medical centres, and built two new field hospitals.
But Wuhan resident Chen Yiping told AFP her 61-year-old mother has severe symptoms and was still waiting for a hospital bed because "there are too many people in need of treatment".
The first foreign victim in China was confirmed when an American diagnosed with the virus died in Wuhan.
The only fatalities outside the mainland have been a Chinese man in the Philippines and a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong.
Seventy people on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan's coast have tested positive, with all passengers told to stay inside their cabins to prevent further infection.
Several countries have banned arrivals from China while major airlines have suspended flights.