China’s coronavirus epidemic claimed its first foreign victim earlier this month, it emerged on Saturday, as the overall death toll approached that caused by Sars in 2003.
According to the US embassy, the 60-year-old American died on February 6 at Jinyintian hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. It provided no further details about the victim.
Meanwhile, France’s health minister said five British nationals had been diagnosed with the virus in a ski resort after coming into contact with someone who had recently been in Singapore. France now has 11 confirmed cases.
Earlier on Saturday, China’s National Health Commission said that as of Friday the virus death toll stood at 722 people in China. Another Chinese national from Wuhan died earlier this month in the Philippines.
Hong Kong, which on Saturday began to implement mandatory 14-day quarantine periods on all arrivals from China, has also reported one fatality.
Sars, another respiratory illness that also originated in China, claimed the lives of 774 people in 2003, according to the World Health Organization. But other estimates have put the toll at just over 800, in part because of statistical discrepancies over the death toll in Taiwan.
It is likely that China’s official death toll will exceed 774 when it is updated on Sunday morning in Beijing. According to the National Health Commission, there were 81 more deaths and 2,841 new cases in China on Friday.
Friday’s total included the epidemic’s most famous fatality to date — a Wuhan doctor who was reprimanded by police for warning colleagues and superiors about the outbreak and later contracted it himself. Li Wenliang’s death in the early hours of Friday morning triggered an outpouring of anger, grief and impromptu memorials.
The total number of people infected now stands at just under 35,000, with just over 2,100 confirmed recoveries.
Japan’s foreign ministry confirmed that a Japanese national had died in Wuhan but the official cause of death was reported as viral pneumonia rather than the coronavirus. The strain on Wuhan’s healthcare system, which has lacked adequate numbers of testing kits, has probably meant that many infections and deaths related to the coronavirus are not captured in China’s official statistics.
While Chinese cities are implementing stronger lockdown rules in order to stem the spread of the virus, other countries in the Asia Pacific region are scrambling to prevent sustained human-to-human transmission.
Singapore formally raised its alert level on Friday as more cases were discovered that could not be traced back to visitors from China. Heightened fears that the disease could start to spread far more rapidly has triggered panic-buying in supermarkets over recent days in Singapore, as well as Hong Kong.