Asia Pacific / Science & Health

Mainland China virus cases rise again after earlier decline


China reported a rise in new virus cases Monday, possibly denting optimism disease control measures that have isolated major cities might be working, while the government promised billions of dollars in loans to companies involved in fighting the increasingly costly outbreak.

The mainland death toll rose by 97 to 908. Two more fatalities were reported outside the country. Another 3,062 cases were reported in China over the 24 hours through midnight Sunday. That was up 15 percent from Saturday and broke a string of daily declines. A government spokesman had said Sunday those declines showed containment measures were working.

As China’s figures ticked up, the head of the World Health Organization warned that confirmed cases of coronavirus being transmitted by people who have never traveled to China could be the “tip of the iceberg.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ remarks come as members of a WHO-led “international expert mission” flew to China on Monday to help coordinate a response to the outbreak.

“There’ve been some concerning instances of onward #2019nCoV spread from people with no travel history to (China),” Ghebreyesus tweeted Sunday, using the virus’s provisional scientific name.

“The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

While the virus’s spread outside China appeared to be slow, Ghebreyesus warned it could accelerate.

“Containment remains our objective, but all countries must use the window of opportunity created by the containment strategy to prepare for the virus’s possible arrival,” he said.

Outside mainland China, there have been more than 350 infections reported in nearly 30 places. There have been two deaths, one in the Philippines and the other in Hong Kong.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China while major airlines have suspended flights, and Air China canceled some of its flights to the United States.

The WHO-led mission to China is being headed up by Bruce Aylward, a veteran of previous health emergencies, Ghebreyesus said. Aylward oversaw the WHO’s 2014-2016 response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

WHO said in recent days there had been “some stabilising” in the numbers of new cases of the coronavirus in China. But the U.N. agency cautioned it was too early to say if the virus had peaked.

The SARS-like virus is believed to have emerged late last year in the central city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province where millions of people are under lockdown in a bid to stop it spreading.

Also Monday, Hong Kong reported seven more cases, raising its total to 36. The government said all were part of a family gathering attended by two relatives from mainland China. Malaysia reported its 18th case.

China has built two hospitals for virus patients in Wuhan and sent thousands of extra doctors, nurses and other health care workers to the city of 11 million people. Most access to Wuhan was suspended Jan. 23 and restrictions were expanded since then have spread to cities with a total of 60 million people.

The fatality toll has passed the 774 people believed to have died in the 2002-03 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, another viral outbreak that originated in China. The total of 40,171 confirmed cases of the new virus vastly exceeds the 8,098 sickened by SARS.

More than 360 cases have been confirmed outside mainland China.

Asian stock markets slid Monday following warnings that investor optimism about the disease and its economic impact coming under control might be premature.

China’s central bank announced a 300 billion yuan ($43 billion) fund to make low-interest loans to producers of medicine and medical supplies or other companies involved in fighting the virus.

Chinese businesses are reeling from anti-disease measures that closed shops, restaurants and factories and disrupted travel.

Businesses are gradually reopening following the Lunar New Year holiday period, which was extended to discourage travel, but they face heavy losses.

Over the weekend, the government promised tax cuts and subsidies to farmers, supermarkets, producers of medical supplies and companies that contribute to anti-disease work.

China’s leaders are trying to keep food flowing to crowded cities despite the anti-disease controls and to quell fears of possible shortages and price spikes following panic buying after most access to Wuhan and nearby cities was cut off.

On Sunday, Hong Kong released 3,600 people quarantined aboard the cruise ship Dream World after tests of the crew found no infections. The ship was isolated after previous passengers were diagnosed with the virus.

Hong Kong has shut all but two of its land and sea border points to the mainland. On Saturday, it started enforcing a 14-day quarantine on arrivals from mainland China.

Malaysia confirmed its 18th case in a man who works in Macau, a Chinese territory adjacent to Hong Hong, and visited the mainland before going to Malaysia on Feb. 1. The man was first diagnosed with SARS before testing positive for the new virus.

The mother of a physician who died last week in Wuhan said in a video released Sunday she wants an explanation from authorities who reprimanded him for warning about the virus in December.

The death of Li Wenliang, 34, prompted an outpouring of public anger. Some postings left on his microblog account said officials should face consequences for mistreating Li.

“We won’t give up if they don’t give us an explanation,” said Lu Shuyun in the video distributed by Pear Video, an online broadcast platform.

The video shows flowers in her home with a note that says, “Hero is immortal. Thank you.”