The death toll from the new coronavirus outbreak surged to 2,000 on Wednesday, as Chinese and international health officials warned against excessive measures to contain the epidemic.
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More than 74,000 people have now been infected by the virus in China, with hundreds of more cases in some 25 countries.
The situation remains serious at the epicenter, with the director of a hospital in the central city of Wuhan becoming the seventh medical worker to succumb to the COVID-19 illness.
But Chinese officials released a study showing most patients have mild cases of the infection, and World Health Organization officials said the mortality rate was relatively low.
The outbreak is threatening to put a dent in the global economy, with China paralyzed by vast quarantine measures and major firms such as iPhone maker Apple and mining giant BHP warning it could damage bottom lines.
Several countries have banned travelers from China and major airlines have suspended flights--something that Beijing’s ambassador to the EU warned was fueling panic and threatening attempts to resume business.
Russia on Tuesday said no Chinese citizens would be allowed to enter its territory from Feb. 20.
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The epidemic has triggered panic buying in Singapore and Hong Kong, concerns about cruise-ship travel and the postponement of trade fairs, sports competitions and cultural events in China and abroad.
Authorities have placed about 56 million people in hard-hit central Hubei and its capital Wuhan under an unprecedented lockdown.
The city was carrying out “very good public health practice” with door-to-door surveillance, said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergency program.
Other cities far from the epicenter have restricted the movement of residents, with a 14-day self-quarantine for people returning to Beijing.
President Xi Jinping, in a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said China’s measures were achieving “visible progress,” according to state media.
The official death toll in China hit 2,000 after another 132 people died in Hubei, where the virus emerged in December.
Liu Zhiming, the director of Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, became its latest victim, sparking an outpouring of grief online.
Earlier this month, the death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang--who had been punished by authorities for sounding the alarm about the virus in late December--triggered anger and calls on social media for political reform.
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Official figures, meanwhile, showed there were nearly 1,700 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday in Hubei.
New infections have been falling in the rest of the country for the past two weeks.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned that it was too early to tell if the decline would continue.
A study among tens of thousands of confirmed and suspected cases showed that 81 percent of patients had only mild infections.
The study released by China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention also showed the death rate stood at 2.3 percent, falling below 1 percent for people in their 30s and 40s.
WHO officials said the COVID-19 illness was “less deadly” than its cousins, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
But it is higher than the mortality rate for the seasonal flu, at around 0.1 percent in the United States.
Ryan said the outbreak was “very serious” and could grow, but stressed that outside Hubei the epidemic was “affecting a very, very tiny, tiny proportion of people.”
There have been some 900 cases around the world, with five deaths in France, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Another 88 people tested positive for the virus on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship off Yokohama in Japan, raising the number of those infections to 542.
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The US has repatriated more than 300 American passengers and Britain became the latest country to offer its citizens a way off the ship after similar plans by Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, and South Korea.
And around 500 passengers were to leave the vessel on Wednesday after testing negative for the virus.
South Korea reported 15 new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday--increasing its total by nearly 50 percent–including a cluster of at least 11 centred on the southern city of Daegu.
The trade-dependent South has been hit by the economic fallout from the virus outbreak in neighboring China, but until Wednesday’s jump, its own case numbers had hardly changed for several days.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement that 15 new coronavirus cases had been confirmed, raising its total from 31 to 46.
Of those, 13 were in Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang province, with 11 of them believed to be linked to a single patient, a 61-year-old woman.
Ten of them attend the same church as the woman, the KCDC said.
She had first developed a fever on Feb. 10 but reportedly refused to be tested for coronavirus on the grounds she had not recently traveled abroad.
She was not put into quarantine until a week later and was confirmed as the country’s 31st case on Tuesday.
Seoul has blocked entry to foreigners coming from Hubei, the Chinese province that is the epicenter of the outbreak, and suspended visa-free entry to the island of Jeju, popular with Chinese tourists, but has not imposed a general ban on arrivals from China.
Meanwhile, an elderly Hong Kong man who contracted the new coronavirus died on Wednesday, authorities announced, the second fatality from the outbreak in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
“A 70-year-old male patient who was infected with the novel coronavirus deteriorated and succumbed in Princess Margaret Hospital this morning,” the Hospital Authority said in a statement.
Officials said the man was taken to hospital on Feb. 12 after a fall at home. He had a fever and tested positive for the virus, dying a week later.
In mainland China, where the virus first emerged, more than 2,000 people have been killed and 74,000 infected.
Hong Kong has confirmed the virus in 62 patients, two of whom have died. The first infections were largely found within people who had traveled to Hubei province.
But in recent weeks local infections have increased among residents with no history of travel to China.
Hong Kong is on edge over the virus partly because of its own tragic history of experiencing a deadly disease.
In 2003, 299 Hong Kong residents were killed by an outbreak of SARS--40 percent of the global total fatalities.
The outbreak left deep psychological scars on the tightly packed city and a lasting legacy of distrust towards China’s communist leadership who initially covered up the outbreak.
In the last fortnight, the international business hub has been hit by a wave of panic buying, with supermarket shelves emptied of staple goods such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer and rice.
Authorities say the supply of goods remains stable and says panic buying is itself causing shortages.
Face masks, however, remain in short supply with queues cropping up across the city whenever a local pharmacy or store announces a new delivery.
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