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China's leadership admits ‘shortcomings’ in coronavirus response

China’s top leadership has admitted “shortcomings and difficulties” in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, as state media said a new hospital built at breakneck pace began receiving patients in the epicentre of the crisis.

Fifty-seven new deaths were confirmed on Monday – the single-biggest daily increase since the virus was detected late last year in the central city of Wuhan.

The death toll in China stood at 361, exceeding the 349 mainland fatalities from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak of 2002-03, which eventually killed nearly 800.

The government in Beijing nevertheless hit out at the US for sparking “panic” with its response to the coronavirus, including a ban on foreigners who have recently been to China.

The virus has so far spread to more than 20 countries, and several other nations have instituted similarly tough rules.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the crisis a global health emergency, and the first foreign death from the virus was confirmed in the Philippines on Sunday.

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China’s elite Politburo Standing Committee called for improvements to the “national emergency management system” following “shortcoming and difficulties exposed in the response to the epidemic”, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

“It is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade,” it added.

The government also said it “urgently” needed medical equipment and surgical masks, protective suits and safety goggles as it battles to control the outbreak.

Authorities in provinces that are home to more than 300 million people – including Guangdong, the country’s most populous – have ordered everyone to wear masks in public in an effort to contain the virus.

But factories capable of producing about 20m masks a day are only operating at 60-70% of capacity, industry department spokesman Tian Yulong said, adding that supply and demand remained in “tight equilibrium” as a result of the lunar new year break.

Tian said authorities were taking steps to bring in masks from Europe, Japan and the US, while the foreign ministry said countries including South Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan and Hungary had donated medical supplies.

All but one of the 57 new deaths reported Monday were in Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, most of which has been under lockdown for almost two weeks.

With 17,200 confirmed infections, the mortality rate for the new coronavirus is around 2.1%, compared with 9.6% for Sars.

Quick guide

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals.

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission. As of 3 February, 361 people have died in China, and one in the Philippines. Confirmed infections in China are 17,238, and the official Chinese figures include Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Outside of China, infections stand at more than 150.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, after more than 160 were tested and found negative. The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

How worried are the experts?

There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.

At what point should you go to the doctor if you have a cough, say?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that there is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening. The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

In Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have jumped from animals at a market into humans, authorities has been racing to build two new hospitals to treat the infected.

The first of those – a 1,000-bed facility – “began to receive” patients Monday, the People’s Daily reported, just 10 days after construction began, but no details were offered about how many.

The second hospital is due to open later this week.

The virus is taking an increasing economic toll, shutting down businesses, curbing international travel and impacting production lines of major global brands.

The Shanghai stock market plunged almost 8% Monday on the first day of trading since the holiday as investors played catch-up with last week’s global retreat.

In Wuhan, which has been transformed from a bustling industrial hub into a near-ghost town, residents have been living in deep fear of catching the virus.

The city’s medical facilities have been overwhelmed, with Xinhua reporting that 68 medical teams of 8,300 staff had been sent to Hubei.

The industrial city of Wenzhou, 800km (497 miles) to the east, was placed under a similar lockdown to Wuhan on Sunday and its 9 million people ordered to stay indoors.