Coronavirus death toll rises to 813, exceeds SARS fatalities in 2003

The number of people who have died after being infected by the novel coronavirus rose to 813 on Sunday, surpassing in less than two months the death toll during the eight-month-long outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus in 2003.

Total infections from the coronavirus, which is similar to the SARS pathogen, reached around 37,500 on Sunday, and officials in Shanghai said they had observed a worrying new attribute in the new outbreak: the virus can infect new patients as an aerosol. SARS had claimed the lives of 774 people in 2002-03.

Experts and officials said the coming week will be crucial as millions of Chinese return to their places of work after the Chinese New Year holidays, which were extended in an effort to curb the disease’s spread.

The number of new cases logged over Saturday was 3,419 — slightly higher than the 3,205 seen the previous day but still lower than the peak of 3,925 reported on Wednesday.

“That means the joint control mechanism of different regions and the strict prevention and control measures have worked,” a spokesman for the National Health Commission, Mi Feng, said at a news conference, according to news agency AP.

Among the new infection cases were six more people diagnosed with the virus among the 3,700 passengers on a cruise ship quarantined in Japan, Reuters reported. The crew of the ship includes 136 Indians, who have appealed to the Indian government for help.

The new cases are an American passenger in her 70s and five crew members — four Filipinos and a Ukrainian.The infections on Diamond Princess, now 70 in all, represents the single-largest cluster of patients outside of a hospital in China.

Many of China’s usually teeming cities have almost become ghost towns during the past two weeks as the government ordered virtual lockdowns, cancelled flights, closed factories and shut schools. Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces and schools will remain closed and many white-collar employees will work from home — a level of restriction that is predicted to hit the Chinese as well as parts of the global economy.

Financial markets in many countries have slumped and businesses in India are taking stock of inventories of raw materials and products they import from Chinese manufacturers.

On Sunday, a fourth British citizen was confirmed to have been infected by the virus following a chain of contact that demonstrated how virulent the pathogen is. The latest patient is believed to have contracted it from another British citizen while they briefly shared lodging at a ski resort in France.

Officials in Shanghai said the they have now confirmed a new transmission route for the virus: as aerosol. “Aerosol transmission refers to the mixing of the virus with droplets in the air to form aerosols, which causes infection after inhalation, according to medical experts,” Chinese news outlet China Daily quoted Zeng Qun, deputy head of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, as saying.

Aerosol transmission can potentially cause someone to be infected if a patient nearby sneezes.

Till now, the virus is believed to have spread through direct transmission — through contact with blood or body fluids – or indirect transmissions, which include contact with a surface infected by a patient.

As millions of Chinese prepared to go back to work, the public dismay and mistrust of official numbers was evident on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

“What’s even more frustrating is that these are only the ‘official’ data,” said one user.

“We all know we can’t purchase masks anywhere, why are we still going back to work?” said a second. “More than 20,000 doctors and nurses around the country have been sent to Hubei, but why are the numbers still rising?” asked a third.

Authorities had told businesses to tack up to 10 extra days on to holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January and some restrictions continued. Among the latest 89 deaths, 81 were in Hubei.

An American hospitalised in the provincial capital Wuhan, where the outbreak began, became the first confirmed non-Chinese victim. The Washington Post identified him as Hong Ling, a 53-year old geneticist who studied rare diseases at Berkeley.

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