Global alarm as China virus death toll rises

Over 470 infected; cases surface in US, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Japan

Global alarm as China virus death toll rises

People wearing masks at the international airport in Beijing on Wednesday. AFP

BEIJING/SHANGHAI, January 22

Deaths from China’s new flu-like virus today rose to nine with 473 confirmed cases, heightening global fears of contagion from an infection suspected to have come from animals.

The previously unknown and contagious coronavirus strain emerged from the central city of Wuhan, with cases now detected as far away as the United States. Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one. Officials believe the origin to be a market where wildlife is traded illegally. There is no vaccine for the virus.

Contrasting with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people, China has this time given regular updates to try and head off panic as millions travel at home and abroad for the Lunar New Year. “The rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading,” National Health Commission Vice-Minister Li Bin acknowledged.

About 2,200 people in contact with infected people are in isolation, reports said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) began an emergency meeting to rule if the outbreak was a global health emergency. Amid official exhortations to stay calm, many Chinese were cancelling trips, buying face masks, avoiding public places like cinemas and shopping centres, and even turning to an online plague simulation game or watching disaster movie ‘The Flu’ as a way to cope.

President Donald Trump said the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had a good containment plan. “We think it is going to be handled very well,” he said at Davos in Switzerland.

Li said the virus, which can cause pneumonia, was being spread via breathing. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.

Across China, companies from Foxconn to Huawei Technologies and HSBC Holdings were warning staff to avoid Wuhan and handing out masks. Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, said he was advising employees not to visit China.

World Health Organisation spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said new cases would appear as China stepped up monitoring. But Li said there was no evidence of “super-spreaders” capable of disseminating the virus more widely, as happened during the SARS outbreak. SARS was thought to have crossed to humans from civet cats sold for food. — Reuters

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