The death toll from the novel coronavirus surged past 800 in mainland China on Sunday, overtaking global fatalities in the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic, even as the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the outbreak appeared to be “stabilising”.
With 89 more people dying – mostly in Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak – the toll is now higher than the 774 killed worldwide by Sars, according to figures from national health authorities.
The latest data came after the WHO said the last four days had seen “some stabilising” in Hubei but warned the figures can still “shoot up”.
Almost 37,200 people in China have now been infected by the new coronavirus, believed to have emerged late last year in Hubei’s capital Wuhan, where residents are struggling to get daily supplies because of sweeping transport restrictions and instructions to stay inside.
The epidemic has prompted the government to lock down whole cities as anger mounts over its handling of the crisis, especially after a whistleblowing doctor fell victim to the virus.
With much of the country still not back at work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, cities including financial hub Shanghai have ordered residents to wear masks in public.
Many regions far from Hubei are allowing only one person per household to go out every two days to buy supplies.
WHO Health Emergencies Programme head Michael Ryan said the “stable period” of the outbreak “may reflect the impact of the control measures that have been put in place”.
While the death toll has climbed steadily, new cases per day have declined since Wednesday’s single-day peak of nearly 3,900 new cases nationwide.
On Sunday, the number of new cases was just over 2,600 people.
Millions of people remain under lockdown in Hubei, in a bid to stop the virus spread.
“The local government asked people to stay at home as much as possible, but there’s not enough goods in shops each time we get there, so we have to go out frequently,” said a woman surnamed Wei, who said her husband was infected.
Melissa Santos, a student from the Dominican Republic living in Wuhan, said she planned to go out Sunday for the first time in a week to buy food.
“I am a bit worried. I have read that the virus can be transmitted very fast, in a few seconds,” she said.
China drew international condemnation for covering up cases during the Sars outbreak, whereas the measures it has taken this time have been praised by the WHO.
But anger over Beijing’s approach erupted on social media this week after the death of a Wuhan doctor who police silenced when he raised the alarm about the threat of an emerging virus in December.
The doctor, 34, died early on Friday, after contracting the virus while treating a patient.
Chinese academics were among those angered by his death, with at least two open letters posted on social media demanding more freedoms.
“Put an end to the restrictions on freedom of speech,” one letter demanded.
The central government responded by sending its anti-graft body to launch an investigation, as Beijing attempts to ease the anger.
But Ian Lipkin – a professor at Columbia University who worked with China on the Sars outbreak – said earlier intervention could have made a key difference.
“This virus was percolating along without anyone realising it was there,” he said.
If the quarantine measures have been effective, the epidemic should peak within the next fortnight, Lipkin added – although there is still a risk the number of cases could increase when people return to work.
“If in fact the methods for containment have been adequate or effective at all . . . I think we will start to see some dramatic reduction in China around the third week of February,” he said.
Lipkin also said warmer weather would help to slow the number of cases.
The first foreign victim in China was confirmed this week when a 60-year-old American diagnosed with the virus died on Thursday in Wuhan.
The only fatalities outside the mainland have been a Chinese man in the Philippines and a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong.
Governments have hardened their defences, with several countries banning arrivals from China while major airlines have suspended flights.
Sixty-four people on board the Diamond Princess off Japan’s coast have tested positive and the ship’s passengers have been asked to stay inside their cabins to prevent new infections.