China virus death toll rises to 56, with nearly 2,000 infected

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China on Sunday expanded drastic travel restrictions to contain the spread of a new coronavirus that President Xi Jinping said posed a “grave” threat, as the death toll reached 56 and Shanghai reported its first fatality.

China confirmed 1,975 cases of patients infected with the new coronavirus as of January 25, state broadcaster CCTV reported. More than 2,000 people across the world have now been infected.

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The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, and to other countries including Singapore, Thailand, Japan, France, the United States and Canada.

In a worrying sign for containment efforts, Shanghai on Sunday reported its first death from the virus – an 88-year-old man with pre-existing health problems.

China has sealed off Wuhan and other cities in hard-hit Hubei province – affecting tens of millions of people – and is now expanding restrictions to other parts of the country. It also scaled back traditional celebrations for the Lunar New Year, closing major tourist attractions.

The World Health Organization this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency but some health experts question whether China can continue to contain the epidemic.

Transport restrictions

The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movement within China, at a time that is usually China’s peak travel season.

Health authorities in Beijing urged people not to shake hands in greeting but use a traditional cupped-hand gesture instead. The advice was sent in a text message that went out to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.

On Saturday, Canada declared the first “presumptive” confirmed case of the virus in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. The patient, a male in his 50s, arrived in Toronto on January 22 and was hospitalised the next day after developing symptoms of respiratory illness, officials said.

The outbreak has overshadowed the start of the Lunar New Year, typically a festive time of year, with public events cancelled and many tourist sites shut. Many people on social media have been calling for the week-long holiday to be extended to help prevent further spread of the virus.

Curbs on movement were stepped up with the northern city of Tianjin announcing plans to suspend all inter-province shuttle buses from January 27, the official People’s Daily reported on Sunday. It will also halt all group tours, at home and abroad, from Monday.

China virus

The Lunar New Year is China’s biggest holiday but events have been called off in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus [Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo]

On Saturday, Hong Kong declared a virus emergency, scrapped celebrations and restricted links to mainland China, while Australia confirmed its first four cases, Malaysia confirmed four and France reported Europe’s first cases on Friday.

The US was arranging a charter flight on Sunday to bring its citizens and diplomats back from Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak, the Wall Street Journal reported.

School closures

In Hong Kong, which has five confirmed cases, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said flights and high-speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan would be halted. Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until February 17.

Chinese media reported on Sunday that Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park will be closed from January 26. Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily through the Lunar New Year holidays, has already closed.

The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because so little is known about it. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.

There are fears transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the holiday, although many have cancelled their plans and airlines and railways in China are providing full refunds for tickets.

Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.

In an illustration of how such efforts could miss cases, doctors at a Paris hospital said two of the three Chinese nationals in France who have been diagnosed with the virus had arrived in the country without showing any symptoms.

A report by infectious disease specialists at Imperial College, London on Saturday said the epidemic “represents a clear and ongoing global health threat,” adding: “It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China.”

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