China coronavirus death toll nears 500

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    BEIJING/SHANGHAI. — The death toll from a coronavirus outbreak in China passed 490 on Wednesday, as two US airlines suspended flights to Hong Kong following the first fatality there and 10 cases were confirmed on a cruise ship quarantined in Japan.

    China’s National Health Commission said another 65 deaths were reported on Tuesday, a new daily record bringing the toll on the mainland to 490, mostly in and around the locked-down central city of Wuhan where the virus emerged late last year.

    There have been two deaths outside mainland China. A 39-year-old man in Hong Kong with an underlying illness who had visited Wuhan city died on Tuesday. A man died in the Philippines last week after visiting Wuhan, the first virus-related overseas fatality.

    Across mainland China, there were 3,887 new confirmed infections, bringing the total accumulated number to 24,324.

    Ten people on a cruise liner under quarantine at the Japanese port of Yokohama tested positive for coronavirus, Japan’s health minister said, a figure that could rise as medical screening of thousands of patients and crew continued.

    The 10 infected people will be transported to a medical facility, while the remaining around 3,700 people will be quarantined on board the Carnival Corp ship Diamond Princess for 14 days. There are now 33 cases in Japan.

    “I want to take sufficient care of the health of passengers and crew and make every effort to prevent the spread of the virus,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told a media briefing.

    Carnival on Tuesday cancelled cruises scheduled to depart the Japanese ports of Yokohama and Kobe this week because of delays related to the coronavirus checks.

    Another cruise ship, the World Dream operated by Dream Cruises, docked in Hong Kong on Wednesday after being denied entry to Taiwan, with all passengers and crew undergoing health checks, Hong Kong’s Cable TV reported.

    Nearly 230 cases have been reported in 27 other countries and regions outside mainland China, according to a Reuters tally based on official statements from the authorities involved.

    “We have the ability and confidence to finally win this war of containment,” China’s state councilor Wang Yi told Thailand’s foreign minister during a call on Tuesday, according to China’s foreign ministry.

    Wang said the mortality rate of less than 2.1% from the coronavirus outbreak to date was far lower than that of other major epidemics, the foreign ministry said in its account of the call published on Wednesday.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the flu-like virus a global emergency and experts say much is still unknown, including its exact mortality rate and transmission routes.

    ECONOMIC IMPACT SPREADS

    Asian stocks steadied on Wednesday as Chinese stocks nudged higher on hopes of additional stimulus to lessen the economic impact of the epidemic on the world’s second-largest economy.

    Nearly $700 billion was wiped off mainland Chinese stocks on Monday and many factories remain closed, cities cut off and travel in and out of China severely restricted, fuelling worries about global supply chains.

    White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the epidemic would delay a surge in US exports to China expected from the Phase 1 trade deal set to take effect later this month.

    Bank of Japan Deputy Governor Masazumi Wakatabe said the central bank of the world’s third-biggest economy was ready to ramp up stimulus measures, citing “heightening uncertainties regarding the impact of the spread of the coronavirus” among other headwinds.

    American Airlines Group and United Airlines said on Wednesday they would suspend flights to and from the Asian financial hub after this week. The announcements mean no US carriers will be flying passenger flights to Hong Kong after this week.

    Thousands of medical workers in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China, held a second day of strikes on Tuesday to press for complete closure of borders with the mainland after three checkpoints were left open.

    Hong Kong has confirmed 18 cases. It was badly hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a coronavirus that emerged from China in 2002, killed almost 800 people worldwide and cost the global economy an estimated $33 billion.

    Neighboring Macau, also a special administrative region of China lying across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong, ordered its casinos to suspend operations on Tuesday, effectively closing off the lifeblood of its economy in a drastic measure to contain the epidemic.

    CHINA EVACUATIONS CONTINUE

    Beijing has criticized US travel restrictions, barring foreign nationals who have visited China, as an overreaction and has called on Washington to do more to help China.

    Several countries including Australia and New Zealand continued to evacuate citizens from Wuhan city. The United States said it may stage additional evacuation flights for private U.S. citizens in China’s virus-hit Wuhan on Thursday.

    Wuhan authorities are converting an additional eight buildings, including gymnasiums, exhibition centers and sports centers, into hospitals, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday.

    The latest announcement adds to plans revealed earlier this week to convert three other venues in the city into hospitals. Once all 11 buildings are converted, a process that is expected to be completed later on Wednesday, they will be able to accommodate 10,000 patients.

    A specially constructed hospital in Wuhan, designed with 1,000 beds, opened to patients on Monday, while the building of a second hospital, with 1,600 beds, is also scheduled to be completed on Wednesday.

    WHO CALLS FOR IMPROVED DATA-SHARING

    GENEVA. – The head of the World Health Organization on Tuesday urged all health ministers to improve data-sharing on coronavirus immediately and said he would send a team of international experts to work with Chinese counterparts.

    The UN agency was sending masks, gloves, respirators and nearly 18,000 isolation gowns from its warehouses to some two dozen countries that need support, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told its Executive Board.

    So far 22 nations have reported trade or travel-related measures linked to the coronavirus, which Tedros said should be “short in duration, proportionate to public health risks” and reviewed regularly.

    “Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma with little public health benefit,” he said.

    Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the WHO Executive Board that some restrictions went against the UN agency’s advice. He cited prohibitions on entry of foreigners who have visited China in the past 14 days, suspension of visa issuance and cancellation of flights.

    “Do not engage in over-reaction,” Chen said. “You should follow WHO suggestions and refrain from restrictions on international travel or trade, stay clear of discriminatory actions and stigmatiZation.”

    There have been 20,471 confirmed cases of coronavirus in China, with 176 cases in 24 other countries, and one death, in the Philippines, according to the WHO’s latest figures.

    US EXPANDS USE OF DIAGNOSTIC TEST

    The US Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday granted emergency use approval for state public health laboratories to start testing for the new flu-like coronavirus from China using kits developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    The approval may help speed up testing in the United States for the virus, which has infected 11 people in the country as of Feb. 3.

    The World Health Organization has declared the flu-like virus a global health emergency, and experts say much is still unknown, including how the virus is transmitted and how deadly it is.

    Previously, states had to send samples to the CDC for testing. With the approval, state public health labs can order test kits and also start the work of validating the tests within their own labs to make sure their scientists are using it correctly, Scott Becker, the executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), said in a telephone interview.

    “It’s not plug and play. They have to make sure a number of lab scientists in their labs are able to make the test work. This has to be right,” Becker said.

    Once the labs have the kits, Becker estimates they could start testing within five our six days. Initially, he said, labs will also send samples to the CDC to confirm their results.

    Dr Joe Bresee, a CDC epidemiologist who is working on the outbreak response, said the kits contain a collection of reagents or enzymes that will give labs all of the necessary tools they need to test samples for the virus.

    “We hope to send at least one to every state health department and maybe more than one,” Bresee said in a telephone interview.

    The agency also hopes to share the kits with countries that may not currently have the ability to do their own testing, Bresee said.

    Becker expects each kit will cover testing for 400 or so patients.

    Earlier on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 38 U.S. lawmakers from across the country wrote a letter to the CDC asking the agency to quickly share tests with states.

    In it, the lawmakers urged the CDC to “prioritize localities where cases have already been confirmed, so that additional cases may be detected in real-time.”

    Under the emergency use authorization, testing is limited to qualified labs designated by the CDC. – Reuters

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