BEIJING: China reported Saturday a jump in the number of people infected with a new virus to 1,287 with 41 deaths, as it expanded its lockdown to an unprecedented 36 million people and rushed to build a prefabricated, 1,000-bed hospital for victims.
The commission said the latest tally comes from 29 provinces across China, including 237 patients in serious condition. All 41 deaths have been in China, including 39 in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, one in Hebei and one in Heilongjiang.
Meanwhile, Australia announced its first case Saturday, a Chinese man in his 50s who last week returned from China. France said that three people had fallen ill with the virus — the disease’s first appearance in Europe. And the United States reported its second case, involving a Chicago woman in her 60s who was hospitalized in isolation after returning from China.
The outbreak cast a pall over Lunar New Year, the country’s biggest, most festive holiday, which falls on Saturday. Authorities in Beijing and other cities cancelled many public celebrations and other events.
On Wall Street, stocks slumped amid fears over the widening crisis, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing 170 points and the S&P 500 posting its worst day in three months. Health care companies suffered losses, along with financial institutions, airlines and other tourism and travel industry businesses.
Transportation was shut down in Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the outbreak originated, and in at least 12 other cities in central China’s Hubei province, encompassing a population bigger than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.
Hospitals in Wuhan grappled with a flood of patients and a lack of supplies. Videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations, and some complained that family members had been turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.
Authorities in Wuhan and elsewhere put out calls for medicine, disinfection equipment, masks, goggles, gowns and other protective gear.
Wuhan officials said they are rapidly constructing a new hospital to deal with the crisis, to be completed Feb. 3. It will be modelled on a SARS hospital that was built in Beijing in just six days during the SARS outbreak.
The seriousness of the crisis was still an open question.
The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold.
But it is not clear just how lethal this coronavirus is, or even whether it is as dangerous as ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S. alone. Scientists say it is also not clear if it spreads as easily as SARS, its genetic cousin, which also originated in China and killed about 800 people in 2002-03.
The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse. It could instead reflect better monitoring and reporting of the newly discovered virus, which can cause cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough, fever and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.