UN health agency goes to China as mainland deaths rise above 900

An advance team of international experts led by the World Health Organization (WHO) has left for Beijing to help investigate China’s coronavirus epidemic, which authorities said on Monday had now claimed 908 lives on the mainland.

The outbreak has caused huge disruptions in China with usually busy cities becoming virtual ghost towns over the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered communities sealed off, cancelled flights, closed factories and shut schools.

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WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who made a trip to Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping and Chinese ministers in late January, returned with an agreement on sending an international mission.

But it has taken nearly two weeks to get the government’s green light on its composition, which was not announced, other than to say that WHO veteran Dr Bruce Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist and emergencies expert, was heading it.

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“I’ve just been at the airport seeing off members of an advance team for the @WHO-led #2019nCoV international expert mission to #China, led by Dr Bruce Aylward, veteran of past public health emergencies,” Tedros said in a tweet from Geneva on Sunday.

The WHO declared the outbreak a global emergency on January 30, days after the Chinese central government sealed off the province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan, the epicentre of a virus that emerged in December in a seafood market.

Dr Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the team would be able to investigate not only how the virus spreads, but also the severity of the outbreak.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions and mysteries about how this outbreak is unfolding and the actions the Chinese government is taking,” he told Al Jazeera. “(The team) will help us risk stratify this for the rest of the world.”

The death toll from the outbreak in mainland China rose by 97, the largest in a single day so far, to 908 as of the end of Sunday, the National Health Commission (NHC) said on Monday.

‘Tip of the iceberg’
Over the weekend, an American hospitalised in the central city of Wuhan became the first confirmed non-Chinese victim of the disease. A Japanese man who also died there was another suspected casualty.

The coronavirus outbreak has now killed more people than the SARS epidemic did globally from 2002 to 2003.

Across mainland China, there were 3,062 new confirmed infections on Sunday, bringing the total number so far to 40,171.

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