The new coronavirus epidemic in mainland China is almost certain to become more deadly than SARS on Saturday as the death toll passed 700, health experts warned of mask shortages and more cases were confirmed on a quarantined Japanese cruise ship.
The number of new infections in China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, rose on Friday from a day earlier, Chinese health officials said, reversing two days of declines and showing the difficulty of predicting the epidemic’s peak.
The death toll in mainland China jumped by 86 to 722, and is poised to pass the 774 deaths recorded globally during the 2002-2003 pandemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that jumped from animals to humans in China.
So far, only two deaths have been reported outside mainland China – in Hong Kong and the Philippines – from about 332 cases in 27 countries and regions.
During the SARS outbreak between November 2002 and July 2003, 774 people died globally, while the number of reported cases was 8,098, suggesting a far lower transmission rate than the latest coronavirus, but a higher mortality rate.
After China recorded its first daily drop in the number of new infections on Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it was too early say whether the outbreak had peaked.
The first cases in December were traced to a seafood market in the Hubei capital of Wuhan, where wildlife was sold illegally.
“It is hard to say how lethal this novel coronavirus infection is – that is, what proportion of people with infection will eventually die of the infection,” Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases expert at Monash University in Melbourne, told Reuters.
“While the crude mortality appears to be around 2%, there are likely to be many people who have been infected that haven’t been tested … We probably won’t know the true case fatality for some time yet.”
Hubei officials on Saturday reported 81 new deaths, 67 of those in Wuhan, a city under virtual lockdown. Across mainland China, excluding the 2,050 people who had recovered and those who had died, the number of outstanding cases stood at 31,774.
Beijing’s communist leadership has sealed off cities, canceled flights and closed factories to contain the epidemic, with ripple effects for global markets and businesses dependent on the world’s second-biggest economy.
WHO experts say they have not seen the same rapid increase in cases in provinces outside Hubei, or in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau that were badly hit by SARS.
Speaking in Geneva, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned earlier that “the numbers could go up again.”