Coronavirus deaths leap in China as countries struggle to evacuate citizens | World news

China has reported its biggest single-day jump in coronavirus deaths, as countries struggled to evacuate citizens still trapped in the city where the outbreak began and Russia closed its long border with its southern neighbour.

The death toll rose to 170 on Thursday – up from 132 the previous day, a rise of 29%. The number of confirmed cases in China now stands at 7,711, up from 5,974 a day ago. The actual death rate has not risen, and is now at 2.2%.

It is understood that 162 of the deaths – or 95% – are in Hubei province where Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began, is located. Of the new deaths, 37 were in Hubei province and one in the south-western province of Sichuan.

The health chief of Huanggang city, which has reported 500 cases, second only to Wuhan, was summarily sacked by the Chinese government following public anger over her inability to answer questions about the outbreak on state television.

Tang Zhihong floundered under questioning from a central government inspection team together with a reporter. Asked how many sick people there were in one of the hospitals, she replied: “I don’t know, I’m unclear. I only know how many beds there are. Don’t ask me how many people are being treated.”

Her TV appearance generated more than half a million comments on the Weibo account of state television’s news channel, most of them in a very angry tone. A few hours after the programme aired, the city’s health department said in a terse and brief statement that Tang had been removed. It gave no other details.

The government has said it will investigate and punish officials involved in fighting the virus who “slack off” on their jobs.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals.

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission. As of January 30, the death toll in China stands at 170, with 7,711 confirmed cases of infections. In the past week, the number of confirmed infections has more than tripled and cases have been found in 13 provinces, as well as the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin. The virus has also been confirmed outside China, in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US, and Vietnam. There have not been any confirmed cases in the UK at present, with the more than 70 people tested for the virus all proving negative. The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by WHO experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

How worried are the experts?

There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.

At what point should you go to the doctor if you have a cough, say?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that there is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening. The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

The World Health Organization’s emergency committee is meeting on Thursday to decide whether to declare a global health emergency. On Wednesday it warned all governments to be “on alert”.

The WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has praised China for its efforts to contain the virus but said that the few cases of human to human transmission outside of China, in Japan, Germany, Canada and Vietnam were cause for real concern.

In Moscow, the Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin issued a decree ordering the temporary closure of the country’s border with China, which extends for 2,600 miles (4,200 kms). In addition, all train traffic between the two countries, except for one train connecting Moscow and Beijing, was stopped on Thursday.

The US and Japan have started evacuating citizens, and other countries are poised to send chartered flights to Wuhan, amid reports that some evacuations had been held up by delays in obtaining permission from the Chinese authorities.

The first British flight to evacuate citizens will carry about 150 British nationals and 50 others, mainly from the EU. A Spanish chartered flight is scheduled to leave Wuhan at 5am local time on Friday for RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. From there it is understood that the British passengers will be taken to a former NHS facility in the north-west of England.

Australia is yet to gain permission from the Chinese government to evacuate hundreds of its citizens, and New Zealand has launched a separate rescue mission, though a timeline remains unclear.

France, South Korea and other countries are also pulling out their citizens or making plans to do so. About 250 French citizens and 100 other Europeans are scheduled to be flown out of Wuhan onboard two French planes this week.

In Italy a cruise ship’s 6,000 passengers were kept on board while tests were held on two Chinese travellers.

Businesses are beginning to feel the impact of the outbreak. Several airlines have suspended services to China, while Toyota, Ikea, Foxconn, Starbucks, Tesla and McDonald’s were among major companies to temporarily freeze production or close large numbers of outlets in China. The Chinese Football Association has postponed all domestic games.

In Huahe, a town in Hubei province, authorities were investigating the case of a 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who died after his father, who cared for him, was taken into quarantine for five days.

Almost 200 US citizens evacuated from Wuhan on Wednesday were undergoing three days of testing and monitoring at a southern California military base to ensure they did not show signs of the virus.

In Japan, three of the 206 people repatriated on Wednesday had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the number of confirmed cases in the country to 11. A second group of 210 Japanese nationals arrived in Tokyo on Thursday morning.

Officials defended the decision not to forcibly quarantine all Japanese nationals arriving from Wuhan, in contrast to Australia, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand, which will quarantine all evacuees for at least two weeks regardless of whether they show symptoms.

Japan has classified the virus as a “designated infectious disease”, meaning it will be allowed to forcibly quarantine those who test positive, but the measure cannot legally be implemented until 7 February.

The public broadcaster NHK said the move would also allow officials at airports and ports to instruct people suspected of carrying the virus to be tested, with penalties applying to those who refuse.

Quarantine arrangements have sparked anger in South Korea, where protesters used tractors to block access to facilities set up as quarantine centres for up to 700 people returning from Wuhan to the cities of Asan and Jincheon, south of Seoul.

Agencies contributed to this report

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