China confirms almost 300 cases of coronavirus and six deaths as rush to contain mystery disease continues

Nicola Smith
Staff at Wuhan's Jinyintan hospital, where coronavirus patients are being treated  - REX
Staff at Wuhan's Jinyintan hospital, where coronavirus patients are being treated - REX

China reported a sixth death from a new coronavirus on Tuesday as the number of confirmed cases jumped to 303 in a fast-moving outbreak.

The Chinese authorities revealed on Monday for the first time that the deadly disease, a novel coronavirus, could be spread through human to human contact, while the World Health Organization has said it will convene a meeting to consider declaring an international health emergency.

Most victims of the disease, which causes fever and breathing difficulties, come from the central city of Wuhan, where the source is believed to have been an animal at a local seafood market. 

The latest death was an 89-year-old man who had underlying health issues, including coronary heart disease. He developed symptoms on January 13 and was hospitalised five days later, the authorities said.

Two other deaths in a 66-year-old man and 48-year-old woman were reported on Tuesdyay. 

However, the virus has now spread to other Chinese cities, including the capital, Beijing, and Shanghai. Four cases have also been reported beyond China’s borders, with two Chinese women testing positive in Thailand, another in South Korea, and a Japanese man who had travelled to Wuhan. 

The spread of the Wuhan coronavirus sent jitters through Asian markets on Tuesday, and sparked tighter screening measures at airports across Asia, Australia and at three major transit hubs in the United States. 

Health authorities in Queensland said they had quarantined a man returning to Brisbane from visiting family in Wuhan with a respiratory illness. 

Jeanette Young, the state’s Chief Health Officer, told a press conference that tests had been done while he was recovering at home, reported the Sydney Morning Herald. 

“The advice is that anyone who travels to Wuhan and comes back and is unwell, for them to go and see their GP or emergency department, and to isolate themselves,” she said. 

The Philippines also reported a suspected case in its central province of Cebu. A five-year-old boy from Wuhan with throat irritation and a cough had tested positive for “non-specific pancoronavirus,” Francisco Duque III, the health secretary, told the local media. The exact strain has not been identified. 

The timing of the outbreak, as hundreds of millions prepare to travel during the Lunar New Year period this weekend, has heightened the Chinese authorities’ sense of urgency to contain the virus. 

Locals in Wuhan are wearing masks to protect themselves - Credit: REX
Locals in Wuhan are wearing masks to protect themselves Credit: REX

Known as the largest annual human migration on Earth, Chinese families will squeeze into trains, planes and busses to travel around the country. According to state media, close to seven million Chinese tourists also travelled abroad last year. 

The WHO has not yet recommended trade or travel restrictions - although a South Korean budget airline has postponed its launch of a new flight route to Wuhan. But a declaration of an international health emergency after its meeting on Wednesday would be a significant step. 

The agency has only used the rare label a handful of times, including during the H1N1 – or swine flu – pandemic of 2009 and the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016.

“I suspect we’re edging towards a decision being made that it is a public health emergency of international concern, just based on the new data emerging today,” Professor Neil Ferguson, a disease outbreak scientist at Imperial College London, told The Telegraph. 

“Could this turn into a global epidemic? Yes, of course that would be the worst case scenario, and is what everyone is trying to prevent happening. 

“At the moment we don’t have sufficient information - I don’t think the Chinese have sufficient information. It’s not a matter of openness, but of information not being collected,” he added. 

The new disease is not influenza but it is a similar type of virus to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 and spread panic throughout Asia after a 2002-2003 outbreak also started in China. 

Zhong Nanshan, the head of China’s National Health Commission, reassured the public that there was no danger of a repeat of the SARS epidemic as long as precautions were taken.

Chang An Jian, the official social media account of Beijing’s top political body responsible for law and order warned citizens on Tuesday not to cover up accurate information about the disease. 

“Anyone who puts the face of politicians before the interests of the people will be the sinner of a millennium to the party and the people,” it said in a commentary, reported the South China Morning Post.

“Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of [virus] cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity,” it added.

Medical staff wear protective gear after some colleagues were infected - Credit: Darley Shen/Reuters
Medical staff wear protective gear after some colleagues were infected Credit: Darley Shen/Reuters

However, with information initially slow to trickle out of China earlier this month, some international experts have cautioned that the disease may have spread more widely than official estimates. 

A study by infectious disease experts at Hong Kong University, released today, estimates 1,343 people have been infected in Wuhan and 116 in 20 other Chinese cities.

And British scientists estimated last weekend that the figure of those infected could be closer to 1,700, after a study was conducted by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, which advises bodies including the UK government and the WHO.

But just a few days on, Professor Ferguson, who developed the model, said these figures were likely to be an “underestimate”.

“In fact I have reason to believe we were conservative,” he told The Telegraph. “We need to be concerned about this outbreak and we need to understand the key features of it really quite rapidly.

“Six deaths out of 300 is a worrying proportion, two per cent, and it would make it really quite a severe respiratory infection.

“But we don’t know the extent to which there’s an iceberg under the water of mild disease - if there’s another 2,000 cases out there undetected, then that number [six deaths] is much less concerning,” Prof Ferguson added.

The UK government believes the risk to the British population remains low, but said that the situation is under constant review. 

“People travelling to Wuhan should maintain good hand, respiratory and personal hygiene and should avoid visiting animal and bird markets or people who are ill with respiratory symptoms,” said Dr Nick Phin, Deputy Director, National Infection Service, Public Health England.

“Individuals should seek medical attention if they develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of visiting Wuhan, either in China or on their return to the UK.”  

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security