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WHO-led team preparing to go to China as death toll from coronavirus rises

The death toll from the novel coronavirus in mainland China rose to more than 720 on Saturday, the World Health Organization said, reporting the largest daily increase since the outbreak was announced in late December.

At a morning news briefing, WHO said it had reports of 86 more deaths in the last 24 hours in China, which had a total of 34,598 confirmed cases. The UN agency said there were 288 cases in 24 countries outside China, with one death.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a World Health Organization-led international team investigating the outbreak will leave for China on Monday or Tuesday.

An American was confirmed dead from the new coronavirus on Saturday while a Japanese man also died with symptoms consistent with the disease, both in Wuhan, as the epidemic looked set to pass the death toll from the SARS outbreak in rapid time.

The 60-year old U.S. citizen diagnosed with coronavirus died at Jinyintan Hospital in China’s Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus outbreak, on Feb. 6, a U.S. embassy spokesperson in Beijing said.

A Japanese man hospitalized with pneumonia in Wuhan also died after suffering flu-like symptoms consistent with the new coronavirus, Japan’s foreign ministry said.

The man in his 60s was suspected of having been infected with the coronavirus, but due to difficulties in diagnosing the disease the cause of death was given as viral pneumonia, the ministry said, citing Chinese medical authorities.

Medical workers move a man into the isolation ward for coronavirus patients at a hospital in Wuhan on Thursday. (Chinatopix via AP)

During the SARS outbreak between November 2002 and July 2003, the number of reported cases was 8,098, suggesting a far lower transmission rate than the latest coronavirus, but a higher mortality rate.

So far only two deaths have been reported outside mainland China, in Hong Kong and the Philippines — both of those victims were Chinese nationals.

“It is hard to say how lethal this novel coronavirus infection is,” Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases expert at Monash University in Melbourne, told Reuters.

“While the crude mortality appears to be around two per cent, there are likely to be many people who have been infected that haven’t been tested … We probably won’t know the true case fatality for some time yet.”

Hubei officials on Saturday reported 81 new deaths, 67 of those in Wuhan, a city under virtual lockdown. Across mainland China, excluding the 2,050 people who had recovered and those who had died, the number of outstanding cases stood at 31,774.

WATCH | A Montreal woman describes what life is like in Wuhan:

Felicity Feng, a Montreal woman visiting her parents in Wuhan over the Lunar New Year holiday, was caught up in the coronavirus outbreak. 5:09

Beijing’s communist leadership has sealed off cities, cancelled flights and closed factories to contain the epidemic, with ripple effects for global markets and businesses dependent on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Saturday marked the final day of the Lunar New Year celebrations, usually characterized by family gatherings, fireworks, riddle-guessing and the lighting of lanterns.

A motorcyclist rides across a bridge in Wuhan. (Chinatopix via AP)

This year, most people were eating dumplings, a traditional custom, at home alone. On national television a gala show will feature recitation of poems on counter-virus efforts instead of the usual music and dancing.

News of the death on Friday of Li Wenliang, a doctor who raised the alarm about the new coronavirus, sparked sorrow and outrage on Chinese social media and rekindled memories of how Beijing was slow to tell the world about the SARS outbreak.

Li, who succumbed to the disease in a Wuhan hospital, was among eight people reprimanded by police in the city for spreading “illegal and false” information after he shared details of the virus with colleagues.

WATCH | Anger in China after whistleblower doctor dies

Memorials and demonstrations pop up all over China for Dr. Li Wenliang. The doctor from Wuhan tried to warn people about the coronavirus as early as late December. He was silenced by authorities, accused of “spreading rumours.” 2:04

Hong Kong was introducing on Saturday quarantine for two weeks for all people arriving from the mainland, or who have been there during the last 14 days.

Matthew Cheung, chief secretary for administration, said that Hong Kong people returning from the mainland must stay home for a fortnight or risk a HK$25,000 ($4,300 Cdn) fine and six months’ jail.

Non-Hong Kong residents must stay in government isolation centres or hotel rooms for the same period, facing the same penalties.

Quarantined cruise ship

While China is bearing the brunt, anxiety levels are spiking across Asia, with Japan alarmed by the rising number of cases aboard a quarantined cruise ship.

Another three people on the cruise liner off Japan tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases from the ship to 64, Japan’s health ministry said. 

There are seven Canadians with confirmed cases of the coronavirus contracted aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in the port city of Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, where hundreds of passengers are expected to remain until Feb. 19 — including 255 Canadian citizens, according to Global Affairs Canada.

Spencer Fehrenbacher from Langley, B.C., is one of those Canadians aboard the Diamond Princess in Yokohama harbour. He was tested for the virus four days ago and said he learned Saturday morning that it came back negative.

He said the ship’s staff is adding movies and TV channels daily to help keep people occupied. The ship was first placed under quarantine in the Japanese port city last Monday.

“They’re going above and beyond to make it as comfortable as possible for us,” he told CBC News.

WATCH | A tour of Canadian Spencer Fehrenbacher’s room on the ship:

Spencer Fehrenbacher from Langley, B.C., has been under quarantine aboard the ship since Feb. 3 0:38

Taiwan and Hong Kong urged residents not to hoard goods such as toilet paper amid signs of panic buying, and the World Health Organization (WHO) chief warned of worldwide shortages of medical gowns, masks and other protective equipment.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd on Friday banned “any guests holding a Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passport, regardless of when they were there last” from boarding the company’s ships.

WHO emergency expert Mike Ryan said reports of Asians being shunned in the West over a perceived connection to coronavirus was “utterly and completely unacceptable and it needs to stop.”

Taiwan’s government said that starting from Monday it would suspend all direct passenger and freight shipping between the island and China. It had already decided to suspend most flights from Monday between Taiwan to China.

Hundreds of foreigners have been repatriated out of Wuhan over the past two weeks, including back to Canada.

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