The number of confirmed cases of the rapidly spreading coronavirus infection in mainland China has reached 5,496, health authorities said on Wednesday, a total that surpasses that of Sars, the epidemic in 2003 that killed more than 600 people worldwide.
The death toll has climbed to 131, they announced, with 840 newly confirmed cases in Hubei province.
Sars infected 5,327 people in mainland China in nine months and killed 349 people, according to the World Health Organisation (WTO).
The total deaths from the new coronavirus infection are all reported in mainland China, with 125 in Hubei province, where the outbreak began, and six in other provinces. About 3,300 people are hospitalised in Hubei province, with more than 20,000 being observed for infection.
The death rate from the new coronavirus is not yet known, as more fatalities will likely be reported. Most patients who have died are older than 60 and had pre-existing conditions, according to reports from local authorities.
The coronavirus can be passed between humans through close contact, Chinese medical experts say.
Zhong Nanshan, one of China’s top respiratory diseases experts, said on Tuesday that the outbreak has yet to reach its peak and that he expected to come within a week to 10 days, adding that there should be “no massive increase afterwards”.
However, University of Hong Kong academics have predicted that the number of infections in five mainland megacities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chongqing – will peak between late April and early May.
Hong Kong infectious diseases expert Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said on Tuesday that researchers in the semi-autonomous city have developed a vaccine for the coronavirus but need time to test it.
Scientists in mainland China and the United States are also racing to produce a vaccine.
The illness with pneumonia-like symptoms has spread rapidly, with reports of cases in at least 15 countries outside China, including other parts of Asia, North America, Australia and Europe.
Countries including South Korea, Germany, Spain and India are considering evacuations of their citizens stranded in Wuhan, which has been subject to a travel ban by Chinese authorities. Japan and the United States sent charter planes to Wuhan on Tuesday.
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