The virus has infected thousands in China and spread to dozens of other countries. AFP/VNA Photo
BEIJING — The death toll in China from the new coronavirus epidemic jumped on Wednesday, as the chief of the World Health Organisation urged countries to work together against the "grave threat" posed by the outbreak.
The WHO is holding a conference in Geneva on combating the virus, which has killed more than 1,100 people in China and spread to dozens of countries around the world.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said viruses could have "more powerful consequences than any terrorist action".
Although 99 per cent of the infections are in China, where it remains "very much an emergency", it also "holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world", Tedros said at the conference, where the virus was officially named "COVID-19".
The case of a British man who passed on the virus to at least 11 other people -- without having been in China -- has raised fears of a new phase of contagion abroad.
"We have to use the current window of opportunity to hit hard and stand in unison to fight this virus in every corner," Tedros said, warning that a failure to act would lead to far more cases in the future.
WHO sent an advance team to China this week for an international mission to examine the epidemic, where more than 44,000 people have now been infected. Chinese authorities have locked down millions of people in a number of cities, but another 94 deaths were reported on Wednesday in the hardest-hit province of Hubei, the central province where around 56 million people are under lockdown.
The mortality rate remains relatively low at around 2 per cent.
Several governments have banned arrivals from China and major airlines suspended flights in a bid to keep the disease away from their shores.
Most cases overseas have involved people who had been in Wuhan, the quarantined central Chinese city where the virus emerged late last year, or people infected by others who had been at the epicentre.
The Briton caught the virus while attending a conference in Singapore and then passed it on to several compatriots while on holiday in the French Alps, before finally being diagnosed back in Britain.
The 53-year-old said on Tuesday he had fully recovered, but remained in isolation in a central London hospital.
"The detection of this small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire," Tedros said on Monday.
The Diamond Princess is in quarantine until February 19. AFP/VNA Photo
An additional 39 people on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the Japan coast have tested positive for the new coronavirus, authorities said on Wednesday, as thousands more steel themselves for a second week in quarantine.
"Out of 53 new test results, 39 people were found positive," Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters, bringing the total of cases on board to 174. In addition, a quarantine officer was also found to be infected with the virus.
Kato added that: "At this point, we have confirmed that four people, among those who are hospitalised, are in a serious condition, either on a ventilator or in an intensive care unit."
Torrent of criticism
Chinese authorities dismissed two senior health officials from Hubei and tightened restrictions in the capital Wuhan, forbidding people with fever from visiting hospitals outside of their home districts and sealing off residential compounds.
Local authorities both in Wuhan -- where the virus is thought to have emerged in a market selling wild animals -- and Hubei have faced a torrent of criticism for hiding the extent of the outbreak in early January.
Most deaths and cases are in Hubei. "The problem of human-to-human transmission has still not been solved in Wuhan," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist, as saying.
"I believe that with enough venues, enough doctors, better protective gear and our various support teams, the situation in Wuhan should improve quickly, but it is still at a rather difficult stage," he said, forecasting a mid- to late-February peak in the outbreak.
Toward the end of January, Zhong had expected a peak in a week to 10 days. — AFP