Coronavirus: Hong Kong confirms first virus death as hospital strike enters second day

Health workers have walked out over authorities' refusal to close border with mainland China

Adam Withnall
Asia Editor
Tuesday 04 February 2020 06:30
Timelapse video shows China's emergency coronavirus hospital built within 10 days

Hong Kong has reported its first death from novel coronavirus, only the second such fatality outside mainland China.

The outbreak, which started in Wuhan, central China in December, has now claimed more than 420 lives and the number of confirmed infections has leapt above 20,000.

Hospital workers in Hong Kong went on strike for a second day on Tuesday in protest against the authorities' refusal to close the border with the mainland. Many health workers have been among those impacted by the highly contagious disease, which causes a fever, dry cough and viral pneumonia.

The patient who died in Hong Kong was a 39-year-old man who had travelled to Wuhan before falling sick on his return, where he was quarantined in hospital. The city's hospital authority said he had been suffering from existing health conditions, without providing further details.

While the number of deaths from novel coronavirus now exceed those of the Sars epidemic of 2002-3, the rate of fatality in the current outbreak is believed to be considerably lower than the roughly 10 per cent mortality rate of Sars.

Most cases of the illness have been mild, with many of those who have died being older people with other underlying conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

The only other fatality outside China was recorded in the Philippines on Sunday. The patient was a 44-year-old Chinese man who, again, had flown to the country from Wuhan.

Meanwhile, the EU said its member states have shipped 12 tonnes of protective equipment to China, with Beijing struggling to maintain supplies of face masks, protective suits and other key preventative gear.

China is enforcing temperature checks at homes, offices, shops and restaurants, requiring masks be worn in public and keeping more than 50 million people from leaving their homes in Wuhan and nearby cities.

Late on Monday, President Xi Jinping presided over a special meeting of the top Communist Party body for the second time since the crisis started, saying "we have launched a people's war of prevention of the epidemic." Xi threatened punishments for those who neglect their duties in containing the virus, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

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

A plane carrying Malaysians from Wuhan arrived in Kuala Lumpur and the 133 people on board were to be screened and quarantined for 14 days, the maximum incubation period for the virus.

Taiwan on Monday flew home 247 of its citizens from Wuhan and had sent three passengers for treatment after they were found to have fever or sore throats. The other passengers are being quarantined at medical facilities for the next two weeks.

Germany's Lufthansa became the latest international airline to suspend flights to China, and several countries are barring Chinese travelers or people who passed through China recently.

In Wuhan, patients were being transferred to a new 1,000-bed hospital that officials hope will improve isolation to stem the virus' spread. It was built in just 10 days, its prefabricated wards equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment and ventilation systems. A 1,500-bed hospital also specially built for patients infected with the new virus is due to open within days.

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 term until further notice, as are many in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere.

Chinese scientists said they have more evidence the virus 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 per cent identical to a bat coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a 42-year-old South Korean woman tested positive for the virus, days after she returned from a trip to Thailand with chills and other symptoms.

It is South Korea's 16th case. Thailand has confirmed 19 cases, mostly Chinese tourists but also in a Thai taxi driver.

A passenger on a Japanese-operated cruise ship tested positive after leaving the vessel while it was in Hong Kong, and Japanese officials were conducting medical checks on the more than 3,000 people on board Tuesday.

Additional reporting by agencies

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