But the WHO added that more details about the circumstances of infections were needed. “This outbreak expanded very quickly in an unsuspecting health system,” said Dr Mike Ryan, the executive director of the health emergencies programme.

A woman wears a protective mask and face shield as she rides the subway in Beijing.Credit:Getty

“Our understanding is that cases among health workers peaked [at the end] of January and there has been a rapid fall-off in the last two weeks.”

Lung disease experts last night warned there could be a link between smoking and higher death rates among Chinese men suffering from coronavirus. A study shows the case fatality rate for men in China is running three times higher than for women.

The latest figures follow an unprecedented public outpouring of grief after Li Wenliang, 34, died from the coronavirus. The doctor had been silenced by police after he posted on social media in December warning colleagues about a potentially dangerous new virus in a Wuhan hospital.

Since then more than 64,000 people in 28 countries worldwide have been infected with the disease, known as COVID-19. Roughly 1380 people have so far died, while Egypt reported the first case in Africa on Friday.

“I wanted to be upbeat and positive but we’ve had enough,” he said.

The city of Beijing has imposed a 14-day self-quarantine on people returning to the city from holidays to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, and threatened to punish those who failed to comply.

It was not immediately clear how the restriction, relayed by the official Beijing Daily newspaper, would be enforced, or whether it would apply to non-residents of Beijing or foreigners arriving from abroad.

A top Chinese official, in an interview with Reuters, acknowledged that coronavirus was a deep challenge, but defended Beijing’s management of the epidemic and lashed out at the “overreaction” of some other countries.

State Councillor Wang Yi, who also serves as China’s foreign minister, said China has taken the most rigourous and decisive measures to fight the epidemic, with many efforts going beyond international health regulations and World Health Organisation recommendations.

In Hong Kong, where 56 cases have been reported, discontent over the government’s efforts to contain the disease is also growing. Residents have staged several small-scale protests at clinics treating mild COVID-19 symptoms.

Meanwhile off the coast of Japan, the strain on passengers aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship is beginning to show. Some 219 people have tested positive in the biggest cluster of cases outside mainland China.

British pensioner David Abel, 74, who has been entertaining thousands with his upbeat daily Facebook broadcasts, issued an unusually emotional plea for Richard Branson, the entrepreneur, to help evacuate Britons by private jet to be quarantined at home.

Separately, biotechnology company Novacyt said on Friday it would launch a certified test for the coronavirus next week, sending its London-listed shares to a record high. The company said last week that it had applied for US regulatory approval for the test.

Daily Telegraph, Reuters, AP

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