BEIJING (AFP) – The number of deaths from China’s new coronavirus epidemic jumped to 902 on Monday after the hardest-hit province of Hubei reported 91 new fatalities.
In its daily update, Hubei’s health commission also confirmed another 2,618 new cases in the central province, where the outbreak emerged in December.
There are now more than 39,800 confirmed cases across China, based on previously released figures from the government.
The new virus is believed to have emerged last year in a market that sells wild animals in Hubei’s capital Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak, before spreading across the country.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said Saturday that the number of cases being reported daily in China was “stabilising”, although the health body warned it was too early to say if the virus had peaked.
A WHO “international expert mission” left late Sunday for China, the agency’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter.
The only confirmed fatalities outside the mainland are a Chinese man in the Philippines and a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong.
The toll has overtaken the global number of deaths caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which killed 774 people in 2002-03.
In Geneva, Ghebreyesus warned that confirmed cases of coronavirus being transmitted by people who have never travelled to China could be the “tip of the iceberg”.
His remarks come as members of a WHO-led “international expert mission” flew to China on Monday to help coordinate a response to the outbreak that has so far infected more than 40,000 people and killed 908 in the country.
“There’ve been some concerning instances of onward #2019nCoV spread from people with no travel history to (China),” Ghebreyesus tweeted Sunday, using the virus’s provisional scientific name.
“The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
While the virus’s spread outside China appeared to be slow, Ghebreyesus warned it could accelerate.
“Containment remains our objective, but all countries must use the window of opportunity created by the containment strategy to prepare for the virus’s possible arrival,” he said.
Outside mainland China, there have been more than 350 infections reported in nearly 30 places.
Several countries have banned arrivals from China while major airlines have suspended flights, and Air China cancelled some of its flights to the United States.
The WHO-led mission to China is being headed up by Bruce Aylward, a veteran of previous health emergencies, Ghebreyesus said. Aylward oversaw the WHO’s 2014-2016 response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
WHO said in recent days there had been “some stabilising” in the numbers of new cases of the coronavirus in China. But the UN agency cautioned it was too early to say if the virus had peaked.
The SARS-like virus is believed to have emerged late last year in the central city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province where millions of people are under lockdown in a bid to stop it spreading.