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Coronavirus death toll hits 56; health officials say virus’ ability to spread getting stronger


BEIJING: Scientists in China are ramping up efforts to develop a vaccine against the deadly coronavirus as the death toll on Sunday rose sharply to 56 and the number of people infected with the SARS-like virus expected to reach 3,000, prompting authorities to expand travel lockdown to contain the epidemic.

The mayor of Hubei province’s capital Wuhan, a city of about 11 million and the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak that has killed 56 and infected 1,975 people, on Sunday said he expects another 1,000 new patients in the city, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Zhou Xianwang said “it was possible to add about 1,000 cases” based on the number of patients in hospital being tested or undergoing observation in the city.

Premier Li Keqiang will head the high-level group to fight the coronavirus epidemic as health officials said the virus’s ability to spread is getting stronger.

The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Sunday that researchers had isolated viruses and were selecting a strain, Xu Wenbo, a director of CDC’s virus institute, told South China Morning Post.

Xu at a press conference in Beijing said that researchers had used high-throughput genetic sequencing to identify pathogens one day after the first four samples were sent from Wuhan on January 2.

China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Sunday said that the new coronavirus is contagious even in its incubation period, which lasts up to 14 days, and that the virus’ ability to spread is getting stronger, the Hong Kong-based daily reported.

Ma Xiaowei, the minister in charge of the NHC, told a press briefing that the authorities’ understanding of the virus was “limited” and they were also unclear on the risks posed by possible mutations.

“The outbreak is expected to continue for some time,” he was quoted as saying.

Ma said that unlike Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the new coronavirus was infectious during its incubation period. He also reiterated earlier reports that people infected with the virus might not immediately show any symptoms.

While Wuhan and 17 others cities in Hubei province remained the epicentre of the viral disease outbreak with most of the deaths having taken place there, the cases have started rising steadily in most of the Chinese provinces and cities, including Beijing.

Originating Wuhan, the virus has spread throughout China and across the world – with cases confirmed in around a dozen countries as distant as the United States.

The US, France and Russia are preparing to pull their citizens out of Wuhan. Other countries are ramping up quarantine measures in an attempt to prevent further infections in their own territories.

India on Sunday said it is examining “all options” in consultations with China to provide relief to over 250 stuck Indians, mostly students, in Wuhan. India on Sunday opened a third hotline in view of “large number” of phone calls from the Indians who are mostly students, the Indian Embassy in Beijing said.

“In view of the large number of calls received in the two hotline numbers set up by @EOIBeijing in connection with the outbreak of coronavirus infection, @EOIBeijing has decided to open a third hotline number +8618610952903,” the Embassy tweeted.

The other two hotline numbers are 8618612083629 and 8618612083617, the Embassy said.

The Embassy said it is “examining all options” and holding consultations with China to provide relief to the Indians holed up in Wuhan.

“Over the last two days our hotlines have fielded nearly 600 calls to respond to concerns regarding this difficult situation. GoI and @EOIBeijing are also examining all options, including through consultations with the Chinese authorities, to provide relief to our affected citizens,” another tweet by the Embassy said.

The reference to “all options” was seen as a pointer to explore the option to evacuate the stranded Indians.

In a rare move, the Indian Embassy here on Sunday cancelled the Republic Day ceremony, owing to the rising concern of the virus which has spread to all provinces except Tibet.

Apart from locking down cities, the government was sending more doctors and nurses, and more medical supplies to Wuhan. More than 1,350 medics had already arrived in the city to help battle the epidemic and a further 1,000 would follow.

Amid the situation becoming grim, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday said China is facing a “grave situation” but he exuded confidence that the country would “win the battle” against the epidemic.

Stepping up all-round efforts to contain the fast spreading SARS-like virus, China on Saturday announced it would build another 1,300-bed makeshift hospital in Wuhan in the next 15 days in addition to another 1,000-bed hospital being built presently in the city and expected to be completed in 10 days, to treat more cases of the deadly virus.

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