China coronavirus death toll rises to 425 as Hong Kong records first fatality

People wear protective face masks as they make purchases from a convenience store in Hong Kong Credit: Vincent Yu/AP

The death toll in mainland China from the coronavirus outbreak has risen to 425, with the total number of cases now standing at 20,438, officials said on Tuesday.

The new figures come after the country opened a new hospital built in 10 days, infused cash into tumbling financial markets and further restricted people’s movement in hopes of containing the rapidly spreading virus and its escalating impact.

The latest figures are up from 361 deaths and 17,205 confirmed cases on Monday.

In Hong Kong, a 39-year-old man has become the first coronavirus death reported in the territory.

The man travelled to the region from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in China.

A worker wearing a protective suit checks the luggage of an evacuee from Wuhan, China in Marseilles, France (Arek Rataj/AP) Credit: Arek Rataj

The figures were announced as Japanese officials were deciding whether to quarantine more than 3,000 people on a cruise ship that carried a passenger who tested positive for the virus.

Other countries are continuing evacuations and restricting the entry of Chinese or people who have recently travelled in the country.

In Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak, a specialised 1,000-bed hospital started treating patients and a second hospital with 1,500 beds is to open within days.

The World Health Organisation said the number of cases will keep growing because tests are pending on thousands of suspected cases.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, presiding over a special meeting of the country’s top Communist Party body for the second time since the crisis started, said “we have launched a people’s war of prevention of the epidemic”.

He told the Politburo standing committee that the country must race against time to curb the spread of the virus and that those who neglect their duties will be punished, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

  • ITV News Correspondent John Ray reports on people queuing round the block to get their hands on face masks in Kowloon

Medical teams from the People’s Liberation Army were arriving in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, to relieve overwhelmed health workers and to staff the new 1,000-bed hospital, located in the countryside far from the city centre.

Its prefabricated wards are equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment and ventilation systems. A second hospital with 1,500 beds is due to open within days.

China’s Shanghai Composite stock index plunged nearly 8% on the first day of trading after the Lunar New Year holiday, despite a central bank announcement that it was putting 1.2 trillion yuan (£133 billion) into the markets.

“We are fully confident in and capable of minimising the epidemic’s impact on the economy,” Lian Weiliang, deputy chief of the National Development and Reform Commission, said at a news conference in Beijing.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, announced that the semi-autonomous territory would shut almost all but two land and sea border crossings with the mainland at midnight on Tuesday to stem the spread of the virus.

Only the land checkpoints at Shenzhen Bay and the bridge to Macao and Zhuhai would remain open.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, centre, at a press conference in Hong Kong (Achmad Ibrahim/AP) Credit: Achmad Ibrahim

More than 2,000 hospital workers went on strike on Monday, demanding a complete closure of the border, and their union has threatened a bigger walkout on Tuesday.

Hong Kong was hit hard by SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in 2002-03, an illness from the same family of viruses as the current outbreak and which many believe was intensified by official Chinese secrecy and obfuscation.

Chinese scientists said they have more evidence that the coronavirus probably originated in bats.

In a study published in the journal Nature, Shi Zhen-Li and colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology reported that genome sequences from seven patients were 96% identical to a bat coronavirus.

SARS is also believed to have originated in bats, although it jumped to civet cats before infecting people. Scientists suspect the latest outbreak began at a seafood market in Wuhan where wild animals were on sale and in contact with people.

Volunteers man a barricade checkpoint at a village in Hangzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province (Chinatopix via AP)

Meanwhile, Japanese health officials said a passenger on a Japanese-operated cruise ship tested positive for the virus after leaving the vessel in Hong Kong on January 25.

The Diamond Princess returned to Yokohama carrying more than 3,000 passengers and crew after making port calls in Vietnam, Taiwan and Okinawa.

A team of quarantine officials and medical staff boarded the ship on Monday and began medical checks of everyone on board, a health ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with department rules.

The passengers and crew members may be quarantined on the ship if the captain agrees to do so, the official said.

The ship’s captain said Hong Kong’s health authorities notified the ship about the passenger’s infection on Saturday, six days after he got off the ship after not being caught on thermal screening, according to a recording of the announcement tweeted by a passenger.

The patient is currently recovering and is in stable condition, and his travelling companions so far have not been infected, the captain said.

An Afghan health worker takes the temperature of a passenger as a preventive measure for coronavirus, during a screening process of travellers who arrived from China (Rahmat Gul/AP) Credit: Rahmat Gul

“I wish we were informed as soon as they found out, then I could have worn a mask or washed hands more carefully,” the passenger said. “I was in Hong Kong nine days ago and it seems to be too late now.”

South Korea, which has 15 confirmed cases, quarantined 800 soldiers who had recently visited China, Hong Kong or Macao or had contact with people who had, defence ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyunsoo said.

The Philippines banned the entry of all non-citizens from China after two cases were confirmed there, including the only death outside China.

The US, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia have imposed similar restrictions despite criticism from China and WHO’s guidance that such measures were unnecessary.

About 150 cases have been reported in two dozen other countries.

With no end to the outbreak in sight, authorities in Hubei and elsewhere extended the Lunar New Year holiday break, due to end this week, well into February to try to keep people at home and reduce the spread of the virus.

All Hubei schools are postponing the start of the new semester until further notice.