On Saturday, the first deaths of an American and a Japanese citizen were recorded in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Almost all of the fatalities have occurred in mainland China, except for one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
Here are the latest developments:
● A 60-year-old American citizen died Thursday at Jinyintian Hospital in Wuhan, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Saturday.
● A World Health Organization-led international team is planning to leave for China on Monday or Tuesday to conduct an investigation of the coronavirus outbreak, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Saturday. Tedros says he “hopes” the team will include officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
● Chinese authorities have labeled masks a “strategic resource” and experts call for the most protective masks to be reserved for medical workers amid global shortages.
● Beijing authorities have said that lying about having contact with someone with coronavirus could be punishable by death.
● Hong Kong expands its quarantine orders to more than 160 people who arrived from the Chinese mainland. People who violate the quarantine face up to six months in jail, said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
BEIJING — The first American and Japanese citizens have died of the coronavirus, which continues to spread unabated in central China, as authorities here labeled masks a “strategic resource” and manufacturing companies pivoted to mask production to try to boost supply of protective equipment.
The deaths, which both occurred in the virus epicenter of Wuhan, came as Chinese officials said the global death toll has climbed to more than 810, surpassing the total of 774 people who died in the SARS coronavirus epidemic from November 2002 through July 2003.
Despite efforts to contain the new virus, which Chinese health authorities Saturday officially named “novel coronavirus pneumonia” or NCP, the number of people in mainland China confirmed as being infected is more than 37,000. Roughly 6,100 cases were considered severe.
A 60-year old American citizen died Thursday at Jinyintian Hospital in Wuhan, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Saturday.
“We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss,” the embassy said in a statement, without disclosing the person’s name. “Out of the respect for the family’s privacy, we have no further comment.”
It is not clear why the U.S. citizen was unable to leave Wuhan, from where the State Department extracted more than 800 people on chartered flights, but it may have been because the person was already too sick to travel.
Chinese media also reported that a Chinese researcher who spent years in the United States died in Wuhan. Hong Ling, a 53-year-old geneticist who specialized in rare human diseases, was a graduate of Wuhan University who went to study in the United States in 1987. He received a doctorate in biology from the University of Arizona in 1994 before doing postdoctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley.
Hong went on to join the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab managed by the University of California, in 1999, according to a report on Sina.com.
He had been on the faculty at Hua Zhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan since 2007 and was a highly regarded distinguished professor who has received numerous national awards, according to local reports. Some colleagues told the Paper that they met Hong in Jan. 21, just before the Lunar New Year holiday, to discuss their research work.
A handful of those Americans recently evacuated have shown signs of fever and are being tested and treated at Travis Air Force Base in California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All returning Americans are being held in 14-day quarantine as soon as they land.
Twelve people in the United States have been reported infected.
In Tokyo, the Foreign Ministry said that a Japanese man in his 60s who lived in Wuhan had also died. Chinese medical authorities notified the Japanese government that the cause of his death was “viral pneumonia,” even though his symptoms strongly indicated that he was infected with the coronavirus.
The man had symptoms consistent with a coronavirus infection and tested positive 10 days ago, but died before the result was confirmed, according to the Japanese state broadcaster, NHK.
The Japanese government has also been evacuating hundreds of its citizens and their family members from Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province. Of the 565 Japanese evacuated, nine have tested positive.
There are another 64 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including in 13 Americans, on the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored off the coast of Japan, with 3,200 people onboard.
Despite efforts to stop the spread of the pneumonia-like illness both in China and across the world, with dozens of countries imposing new screening or quarantine regulations on arrivals from China, cases have been found in more than 25 countries.
After analyzing 17,000 cases provided by Chinese health authorities, World Health Organization epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove said that they found that 82 percent of the cases were mild, while 15 percent severe and only 3 percent were critical. The death rate stands at less than 2 percent, she told reporters in Geneva. By contrast, SARS had a fatality rate of 9.6 percent.
Separately, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus voiced concern about the global shortage of masks, noting that some were selling for 20 times their normal price as vendors tried to make fast money from the outbreak.
It was “inappropriate” for people who were not sick to be wearing them, he said. “There is a moral issue here.”
Many infections appear to be taking place in hospitals and medical centers, with health-care workers particularly vulnerable in the early days.
At least 50 patients and 30 staff members — including the deputy director and the head nurse — have been infected with the coronavirus at Wuhan Mental Health Center, the largest mental health institute in Hubei province, China Newsweek magazine Saturday quoted a doctor at the hospital, Zhao Ping, as saying.
Zhao blamed the lack of readiness by the hospital and a shortage of protective gear and medicine as the major reason for the infections. Before the lockdown, staff members didn’t wear protective gear, possibly leading to cross infections. The situation has improved somewhat, but it remains weak due to a mask shortage, Zhao added.
Between 40 and 50 patients have been transferred to Jinyintan Hospital, and one elderly inmate died there Thursday, the publication reported.
One doctor who tested positive on Feb. 3 had mild symptoms and is under quarantine at home. The hospital director and other doctors declined to comment.
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, carried out by doctors from Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, found that 41 percent of patients in Wuhan contracted the coronavirus while in hospital.
The risk to front-line medical staff was painfully illustrated this week when the Wuhan “whistleblower doctor” Li Wenliang, who was detained and forced to apologize for rumor-mongering at the beginning of January after trying to alert his colleagues to a strange new illness, died of the coronavirus.
The death of a healthy young doctor who tried to sound the alarm has led to an explosion of anger across China at the way its leadership responded to the outbreak, an anger that many political observers are saying represents one of the biggest challenges to the Communist Party in years.
With the party struggling to manage public reaction, a Beijing-based company, Womin Technology, quickly compiled a “public sentiment” report drawing on posts from more than 100 social media sources and submitted it, along with their recommendations, to the central leadership.
The seven-page document, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, analyzed the intensity of public outrage over Li's death. It recommended that the party leadership “affirm” the doctor’s contributions while stepping up efforts to block harmful speech and “divert” the public’s attention with positive news.
It predicted, finally, that there was “low probability” of street gatherings but warned local authorities to be on guard to “deal decisively” with any unrest.
Masks are in short supply in China, and there has been a particular rush for N95 face masks, which can filter out 95 percent of particles. They are sold out online and in stores across China, with some areas even conducting lotteries to win new masks that are being produced.
Now, some provinces have classified the masks a “strategic” resource and have restricted their availability.
In an attempt to save these masks for front-line doctors and nurses, provinces including Jilin and Zhejiang have banned civil servants — except those with special need for protection such as an underlying health condition — from wearing N95 masks.
The northern province of Heilongjiang has meanwhile offered to trade one N95 for five normal surgical masks, so they can send the more high-tech masks to medical workers.
Zhong Nanshan, a veteran pulmonologist who is something of a national hero in China, said this week that N95 masks are not necessary for everyone, and one-off medical use masks are enough under normal circumstances.
Companies across China, from carmakers to cellphone parts suppliers, have turned themselves into mask manufacturers to boost supply.
The General Motors partnership in China, diaper maker Daddybaby and Foxconn subsidiary Fulian have all started to make or sought permission to make masks, while the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, more frequently known as Sinopec, has advertised for mask-making machines.
Other companies are turning to protective suits for medical use. Jiangsu Hongdou, a famous menswear brand, is manufacturing 10,000 protective suits a day but still cannot meet orders. Shanghai underwear brand Three Gun is also making protective suits and sent the first batch of 5,000 suits to Hubei this week.
As the Chinese government has used more and more draconian measures to try to contain the virus, including ordering tens of millions of people across Hubei and Zhejiang provinces to stay at home, they have also tried to enforce increasingly strict rules.
Beijing authorities Friday said that lying about having contact with someone with coronavirus could be punishable by death, that failure to report symptoms such as fever could lead to criminal charges, and that people who are not wearing masks could be detained.
“If found to have endangered public safety with dangerous means, those with such behavior … could be arrested and sentenced to three years or less of imprisonment for lighter cases, and 10 years or more in jail, life sentence, or even death sentence in severe cases,” said Li Fuying, director of the Beijing Judicial Bureau.
Shanghai also mandated Saturday that masks must be worn in public places and that people must cooperate with compulsory temperature checks when entering hospitals and clinics, airports, bus and rail terminals, malls and supermarkets.
In Hangzhou, the capital of virus-stricken Zhejiang province, authorities have banned over-the-counter sales of fever and coughing medications to make sure people who are potentially infected with coronavirus seek medical attention rather than trying to treat themselves.
Lyric Li in Beijing and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo contributed to this report.