China scrambles to contain coronavirus as death toll climbs


A new strain of coronavirus discovered in China claimed 15 more lives since Saturday, bringing the total death count to 56.

Figures reflecting developments in the past 24 hours revealed 688 new cases, bringing the total of number of infections in China to 1,975, in what Chinese President Xi Jinping has classified as a “grave situation.”

A handful of new cases were reported in nearby Macao, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where protesters firebombed an empty building earmarked to become a temporary quarantine zone.

The first suspected infection in Germany was reported on Sunday by the newspaper Bild, though the case, in Berlin, later came back as negative.

Berlin State Secretary for Health Martin Matz told Bild that the patient, who had visited China, had been moved to an isolation ward as a precaution after presenting herself to a hospital in the city with some symptoms.

“The test on this suspected case was negative,” a spokeswoman for Berlin’s DRK Klinikum Mitte confirmed.

Ability to spread increasing

In a press briefing on Sunday, China’s National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said that the virus’s transmission ability was getting stronger and that the number of cases could continue to rise.

The minister said that experts’ knowledge of the virus was limited and that the risks posed by a possible mutation were unknown.

The infection’s incubation period could last from one to 14 days, he said.

Officials previously cautioned that the rapid increase in the death toll and number of infections did not necessarily indicate that the disease was spreading more quickly but could instead reflect improved monitoring and reporting practices.

Most of the people who lost their lives to the virus were middle-aged or elderly and had a pre-existing medical condition.

Wildlife trade banned

Cases have also been identified in several other countries, including the US, France, Japan and Australia. Malaysia and Canada confirmed their first cases of the virus on Saturday.

Read more: Everything you need to know about the new coronavirus

Chinese officials announced Sunday that the country was banning indefinitely the trade of wildlife products in markets, supermarkets, restaurants, and on e-commerce platforms. The source of the virus has been traced to a seafood market that was illegally selling wildlife.

Places that breed wildlife were placed under quarantine and the transportation of wildlife was also banned.

Quarantines and evacuations

The US Embassy in Beijing announced Sunday that the chartered plane arriving Tuesday to transport US citizens out of Wuhan, the city at the heart of the outbreak, would have a limited capacity and that those “at greater risk” from the virus would be given priority.

French automaker PSA Group said it would also remove French employees from the city, adding that they would be quarantined before being brought back to France.

Several Chinese provinces have banned interprovincial travel. In Shanghai, officials have stopped cruise ships from moving into and out of its port.

The virus has disrupted Lunar New Year celebration plans for hundreds of millions of people. The holiday, which takes place this week, is among the most significant in China.

Wuhan, home to 11 million people, has been on virtual lockdown for days. Trains and flights into and out of the city in eastern China were canceled and checkpoints were established along major motorways. On Sunday, officials banned the use of most vehicles in the downtown area and said 6,000 taxis would be made available should people need to get around. Authorities are encouraging people to stay at home.

“I go out with a mask twice a day to walk the dog — that’s the only outdoor activity,” Violet Li, a Wuhan resident, told reporters by text message.

Read more: What constitutes an international public health emergency?

In desperate need of supplies

Additional staff and medical supplies are due to arrive in the city, including 14,000 protective suits, and 110,000 pairs of gloves, goggles, and masks. Videos circulated on Saturday showing throngs of people lined up for examinations. Many complained they had been turned away because the hospitals were operating at full capacity.

“We are steadily pushing forward the disease control and prevention … But right now we are facing an extremely severe public health crisis,” said Hu Yinghai, deputy director-general of the Civil Affairs Department, in a news briefing.

Dozens of cities are also under quarantine, with schools and universities postponing the start a new semester until further notice.

SOURCE:, kp/mm (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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