Deaths from China’s new virus rose to 17 on Wednesday with more than 540 cases confirmed, increasing fears of contagion from an infection suspected to originate from illegally-traded wildlife.
The previously unknown, flu-like coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged from an animal market in central Wuhan city, with cases now detected as far away as the United States.
Contrasting with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people, China’s communist government has this time given regular updates to try to avoid panic as millions travel for the Lunar New Year.
“The rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading,” National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) was meeting to rule if the outbreak was a global health emergency.
After official appeals to stay calm, many Chinese were cancelling trips, buying face masks, avoiding public places such as cinemas and shopping centres, and even turning to an online plague simulation game or watching disaster movie “The Flu” as a way to cope.
“The best way to conquer fear is to confront fear,” said one commentator on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
The virus has spread from Wuhan around China to population centres including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong.
The latest death toll in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, rose from nine to 17 by midday on Wednesday, state television quoted the provincial government as saying.
Official newspaper China Daily said 544 cases had now been confirmed in the country. Abroad, Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.
President Donald Trump said the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a good containment plan. “We think it is going to be handled very well,” he said at Davos in Switzerland.
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