Hospitals in the Chinese city of Wuhan are reportedly dealing with huge numbers of ill patients, raising fears the new coronavirus is spreading faster than official reports suggest, with the death toll being revised steeply overnight.
- Officials have confirmed 544 cases of the virus and 17 deaths
- Medical staff in Wuhan say they are overwhelmed with sick patients
- The ABC understands one hospital alone is treating about 300 patients
There are now 544 cases of novel coronavirus reported across China, with 17 confirmed deaths — almost double that reported a day earlier — according to reports in the country’s state media, Xinhua, the China Daily newspaper and Reuters.
The previous report pointed to nine deaths.
Abroad, Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.
Authorities say they have also confirmed 2,197 cases where people have had close contact with patients.
This comes as the state-owned Global Times newspaper in an editorial appeared to lash authorities in Wuhan for being slow to report the virus had spread to medical workers — a key sign of human-to-human transmission and potential “super-spreaders“.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases includes dozens of people in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong province and Zhejiang province, with the majority in central Hubei province, where the city of Wuhan is located.
However, according to messages in a private WeChat group for Chinese medical professionals viewed by the ABC, one hospital in Wuhan has been overwhelmed with patients, with nearly 300 people in that facility alone exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus.
The information from the group is difficult to independently verify — the ABC made multiple attempts to contact hospitals in Wuhan to ask about the reports, but received no response.
Video footage appeared to back up the reports, showing large lines of patients wearing face masks at a hospital in Wuhan, crowding the wards as doctors moved through checking on them.
Analysis from Imperial College London last week suggested the Wuhan outbreak could have led to more than 1,700 cases, a significantly higher figure than what has been officially reported.
Experts in Hong Kong have suggested the number could be closer to 1,300.
People posting in the group also expressed concern the coronavirus had spread to the city of Nanjing in Jiangsu province.
However, authorities in the city said such statements were “rumours”, and no cases had been reported at any of the city’s hospitals.
SARS cover-up driving fears
Chinese authorities have been at pains to ensure their response to the outbreak has been as transparent as possible, no doubt in light of the backlash they faced over their handling of the SARS epidemic.
Officials had initially tried to hide the real number of cases of the deadly disease, leading to the sacking of China’s then health minister and Beijing’s mayor.
The epidemic saw more than 8,000 SARS cases across 37 countries, resulting in 774 deaths.
In a daily press conference on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said China had been “acting with openness, transparency and a high sense of responsibility towards global health security”.
He said China was sharing information on the epidemic with the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is holding an emergency meeting about the outbreak and its potential global consequences in Geneva on Wednesday 7:00pm local time (4:00am AEST Thursday).
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said new cases of the coronavirus would appear as China stepped up monitoring.
The WHO said an animal source appears most likely to be the primary source of this outbreak.
Cases of the virus have already been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand and Hong Kong, while one man in Brisbane was briefly placed in isolation after returning from Wuhan with flu-like symptoms, but subsequently released.
Hong Kong also reported 118 suspected cases, according to the South China Morning Post; however, 88 of those people have since been discharged.
Macau, another special administrative region of China, also announced its first confirmed case of the virus on Wednesday.