The death toll from China's coronavirus outbreak has jumped to 41 as the Lunar New Year got off to a gloomy start, with Hong Kong declaring a virus emergency, scrapping celebrations and restricting links to mainland China.
Australia on Saturday confirmed its first four cases, Malaysia confirmed three and France reported Europe's first cases on Friday as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a pandemic.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Saturday declared a virus emergency in the Asian financial hub with five confirmed cases, immediately halting official visits to mainland China and scrapping official Lunar New Year celebrations.
Inbound and outbound flights and high speed rail trips between Hong Kong and Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, would be halted, and schools, now on Lunar New Year holidays, would remain shut until February 17. The territory was also treating 122 people suspected of having the disease.
The death toll in China rose to 41 on Saturday from 26 a day earlier and more than 1300 people have been infected globally with a virus traced to a seafood market in the central city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife.
Hu Yinghai, deputy director-general of the Civil Affairs Department in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, made an appeal on Saturday for masks and protective suits. Hospitals in the city have made similar pleas.
"We are steadily pushing forward the disease control and prevention ... But right now we are facing an extremely severe public health crisis," he told a news briefing.
Vehicles carrying emergency supplies and medical staff for Wuhan would be exempted from tolls and given traffic priority, China's transportation ministry said on Saturday.
Wuhan said it would ban non-essential vehicles from its downtown starting Sunday to control the spread of the virus, further paralysing a city of 11 million that has been on virtual lockdown since Thursday, with nearly all flights cancelled and checkpoints blocking the main roads leading out of town.
Authorities have since imposed transport restrictions on nearly all of Hubei province, which has a population of 59 million.
State-run China Global Television Network reported in a tweet on Saturday that a doctor who had been treating patients in Wuhan, 62-year-old Liang Wudong, had died from the virus.
It was not immediately clear if his death was already counted in the official toll of 41, of which 39 were in the central province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located.
US coffee chain Starbucks said on Saturday that it was closing all its outlets in Hubei province for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, following a similar move by McDonald's in five Hubei cities.
The number of confirmed cases in China stands at 1,287. The virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, and the United States.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday it had 63 patients under investigation, with two confirmed cases.
While China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after cover-up of the 2002/2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread, officials in Wuhan have come in for criticism over their handling of the current outbreak.
In rare public dissent, a senior journalist at a Hubei provincial newspaper run by the ruling Communist Party on Friday called for a "immediate" change of leadership in Wuhan on the Twitter-like Weibo. The post was later removed.
The World Health Organisation declared the new coronavirus an "emergency in China" this week but stopped short of declaring it of international concern.