A US national in China has become the first foreigner confirmed to have died from the new coronavirus, while a Japanese man also died after symptoms consistent with the disease, authorities have said.
Officials announced the death toll rose to 724 with 86 more people dying in mainland China – the highest one-day jump so far – as the toll closed in on the 774 killed worldwide during the 2002-2003 Sars epidemic.
The 60-year old US citizen diagnosed with coronavirus died on 6 February at Jinyintan hospital in China’s Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus outbreak, a US embassy spokesman in Beijing said. “We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss,” the spokesman said. “Out of the respect for the family’s privacy, we have no further comment.”
A Japanese man hospitalised with pneumonia in Wuhan died after suffering flu-like symptoms consistent with the new coronavirus, Japan’s foreign ministry said. The man in his sixties was suspected of having been infected with the coronavirus but due to difficulties in diagnosing the disease the cause of death was given as viral pneumonia, the ministry said citing Chinese medical authorities.
As of noon on Thursday 17 foreigners were being quarantined and treated for the disease in China, according to government figures. No updated figures were immediately available.
The only reported fatalities outside the mainland have been a Chinese man in the Philippines and a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong.
Nearly 35,000 people have been infected by the new strain, which is believed to have emerged in a market selling wild animals in Wuhan before spreading across China.
The epidemic has prompted the government to lock down cities home to tens of millions of people, as anger mounts over its handling of the crisis, especially after a whistleblowing doctor fell victim to the virus.
The Chinese vice-premier, Sun Chunlan, visited quarantined Wuhan and instructed officials to take a “wartime” approach as they implement drastic measures that include combing the city for feverish residents.
Hundreds of cases have emerged in nearly 30 other countries as researchers race to find treatments and a vaccine.
Hong Kong has begun began enforcing a two-week quarantine for anyone arriving from mainland China, under threat of both fines and jail terms. Most people will be able to be quarantined at home or in hotels but they will face daily phone calls and spot checks.
Hong Kong has 25 confirmed cases and one death. The city has been on edge with the virus reviving memories of the Sars outbreak that killed 299 people. A deep distrust persists of authorities in Beijing who initially covered up the outbreak. Hong Kong officials hope the new measures will virtually halt the flow of people across the border while allowing the city to remain stocked with food and goods from the mainland.
In the last week Hong Kong has been hit by a wave of panic-buying with supermarket shelves frequently emptied of staple goods such as toilet paper, hand sanitiser, rice and pasta. The government has blamed unfounded rumours of shortages.
Other governments around the world have hardened their defences, with several countries banning arrivals from China and advising their citizens to avoid travelling there. Major airlines have suspended flights to and from China.
Asian cruise ships have become a focal point as dozens of cases have been confirmed on a vessel off Japan’s coast.
Sixty-four people aboard the Diamond Princess off Yokohama have tested positive and passengers aboard the cruise ship have been asked to stay inside their cabins to prevent new infections. Another cruise ship carrying a passenger suspected of infection with coronavirus will not be allowed to dock in southern Japan, the government said. In Hong Kong 3,600 people were confined aboard the World Dream, with eight former passengers testing positive for the virus.
On the mainland, the death on Friday of a Wuhan doctor who was reprimanded by police after he had sent messages warning about the virus back in December sparked a rare outpouring of grief and anger on social media.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who contracted the disease while treating a patient, was eulogised as a “hero” while people on social media railed against “fat officials” and demanded “freedom of speech”. Videos shared on Weibo showed a small group of people blowing whistles in front of a floral tribute to Li at Wuhan Central hospital where he died.
As people across China fumed, the government expressed condolences and ordered an investigation.
Chinese scientists claimed they may have found the animal source of the outbreak, based on genetic analysis, though their results have yet to be published.
The coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats but passed through an intermediate host before infecting humans. The researchers have identified a coronavirus in pangolins that is 99% similar to the one causing the current outbreak.
The US health department is working with pharmaceutical firm Regeneron to develop a treatment using a class of drug that has boosted survival rates among Ebola patients. Two weeks ago Chinese doctors confirmed they had been giving anti-HIV drugs to coronavirus patients in Beijing, based on a 2004 study published after the Sars outbreak that showed “favourable” responses. Scientists around the world are also working to develop a vaccine, which experts say could take months.