Philippines reports first virus death outside China

BEIJING (AP) — The Philippines yesterday reported the first death from a new virus outside of China, where authorities delayed the opening of schools in the worst-hit province and tightened quarantine measures in a city that allow only one family member to venture out to buy supplies.

The Philippine Department of Health said a 44-year-old Chinese man from Wuhan was admitted on January 25 after experiencing a fever, cough, and sore throat.

He developed severe pneumonia, and in his last few days, “the patient was stable and showed signs of improvement, however, the condition of the patient deteriorated within his last 24 hours resulting in his demise”. The man’s 38-year-old female companion, also from Wuhan, also tested positive for the virus and remains in hospital isolation in Manila.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte approved a temporary ban on all travellers, except Filipinos, from China and its autonomous regions. The United States (US), Japan, Singapore and Australia have imposed similar restrictions despite criticism from China and an assessment from the World Health Organization (WHO) that they were unnecessarily hurting trade and travel.

The death toll in China climbed by 45 to 304 and the number of cases by 2,590 to 14,380, according to the National Health Commission, well above the number of those infected in the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) which broke out in southern China and spread worldwide.

Meanwhile, six officials in the city of Huanggang, neighbouring the epicentre of Wuhan in Hubei province, have been fired over “poor performance” in handling the outbreak, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

It cited the mayor as saying the city’s “capabilities to treat the patients remained inadequate and there is a severe shortage in medical supplies such as protective suits and medical masks.”

After Huanggang, the trading centre of Wenzhou in coastal Zhejiang province also confined people to homes, allowing only one family member to venture out every other day to buy necessary supplies.

With the outbreak showing little sign of abating, authorities in Hubei and elsewhere have extended the Lunar New Year holiday, due to end this week, well into February. The annual travel crunch of millions of people returning from their hometowns to the cities is thought to pose a major threat of secondary infection at a time when authorities are encouraging people to avoid public gatherings.

All Hubei schools will postpone the opening of the new semester until further notice and students from elsewhere who visited over the holiday will also be excused from classes.

Far away on China’s southeast coast, the manufacturing hub of Wenzhou put off the opening of government offices until February 9, private businesses until Febraury 17 and schools until March 1.

With nearly 10 million people, Wenzhou has reported 241 confirmed cases of the virus, one of the highest levels outside Hubei.

Similar measures have been announced in the provinces and cities of Heilongjiang, Shandong, Guizhou, Hebei and Hunan, while the major cities of Shanghai and Beijing were on indefinite leave pending developments.

Despite imposing drastic travel restrictions at home, China has chafed at those imposed by foreign governments, criticising Washington’s order barring entry to most non-citizens who visited China in the past two weeks. Apart from dinging China’s international reputation, such steps could worsen a domestic economy already growing at its lowest rate in decades.

The virus’ rapid spread in two months prompted the WHO last Thursday to declare it a global emergency.

That declaration “flipped the switch” from a cautious attitude to recommending governments prepare for the possibility the virus might spread, said the WHO representative in Beijing, Gauden Galea.

Most cases reported so far have been people who visited China or their family members.

WHO said it was especially concerned that some cases abroad involved human-to-human transmission.

Both the new virus and SARS are from the coronavirus family, which also includes those that cause the common cold. The death rate in China is falling, but the number of confirmed cases will keep growing because thousands of specimens from suspected cases have yet to be tested, said the WHO representative in Beijing Gauden Galea.

“The case fatality ratio is settling out at a much lower level than we were reporting three, now four, weeks ago,” he said. Although scientists expect to see limited transmission of the virus between people with family or other close contact, they are concerned about cases of infection spreading to people who might have less exposure.