China virus toll hits 717 as cruise ship faces two-week quarantine
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The death toll from China's coronavirus outbreak rose to 717 on Saturday as the country seethes over an epidemic that claimed the life of a popular doctor and created global panic.
The toll has now surpassed the number of people who died in mainland China and Hong Kong during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, after another 81 people succumbed to the illness in central Hubei province.
More than 34,000 people have been infected in China by the new strain, which is believed to have emerged in a market that sold exotic animals in Hubei's capital, Wuhan, late last year.
Chinese researchers said Friday that the pangolin -- an endangered species whose scales are used in traditional medicine and meat sold in black markets -- may have been a carrier of the disease that jumped to humans.
The virus has since spread across China, prompting the government to lock down cities with tens of millions of people, and panic has spiralled around the globe as more than 240 cases have emerged in two dozen countries.
Hong Kong, which has been hardening its defences, was to begin mandatory quarantine for those arriving from mainland China beginning Saturday, warning that anyone caught breaching the new rules faces up to six months in prison.
Two cruise ships carrying thousands of holidaymakers in Hong Kong and Japan have been placed under quarantine as authorities test people for infections.
On Friday, another 41 people tested positive aboard the Diamond Princess in Japan, bringing the total number of infected cases on the ship to 61.
Passengers aboard the Diamond Princess have been asked to stay inside their cabins to prevent new infections, and have expressed confusion and frustration about a quarantine expected to last until February 19.
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, where eight former passengers have tested positive for the virus.
- Hero doctor -
One of the latest victims of the epidemic was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who was reprimanded by police in Wuhan after he sent a message to colleagues in December to sound the alarm about the virus.
His death on Friday at the age of 34 sparked a rare outpouring of grief and anger on social media over the government's handling of the crisis.
He contracted the disease while treating a patient and was lionised as a "hero" while people on Twitter-like Weibo railed against "fat officials" and demanded "freedom of speech".
The government expressed condolences to his family and ordered an investigation.
Li's death has also highlighted the enormous risks that frontline doctors have taken to treat patients in overwhelmed and under-equipped hospitals in Wuhan, the quarantined city of 11 million people where the virus emerged.
Hospitals are understaffed and medical staff lack sufficient protective gear, according to Hubei authorities.
Forty health care workers were infected with the novel coronavirus by patients at a single Wuhan hospital in January, according to a study.
Authorities in Wuhan are "combing" communities to find people suspected or confirmed to have the virus and place them in quarantine, state media said.
- Xi, Trump talk -
Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump spoke on the phone about the health emergency on Friday.
Xi urged Trump to respond "reasonably" to the epidemic. The United States is among the countries that have banned arrivals from China.
"We talked about, mostly about the coronavirus. They're working really hard and I think they're doing a very professional job," Trump told reporters at the White House.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would offer up to $100 million to China and other impacted countries to combat the fast-spreading coronavirus.
© 2020 AFP