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China virus cases continue to soar with 28,000 total and more than 560 deaths

A strain of the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, as viewed through an electron microscope. (Photo courtesy of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

Coronavirus infections in mainland China again rose sharply, with nearly 3,700 additional cases and 73 new deaths reported on Wednesday alone, authorities said Thursday morning.

China's total confirmed cases now top 28,000, more than 3,800 of them critical.

The increase continues a trend of daily jumps in confirmed cases. China has reported more than 560 coronavirus deaths, including one in Hong Kong, and one person has died in the Philippines.

A Chinese expert in respiratory diseases said that the real number of people infected with the new coronavirus could be much higher than official figures suggest, and it remains too early to predict a "turning point."

The comments from Wang Chen, president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Peking Union Medical College, contrast with an earlier official forecast that it could take up to six weeks to see a drop in infections.

"We have to see that the increase in confirmed cases is not the total number of infections in reality, but only reflects those who had tested positive in nucleic acid tests; and not all patients had gone through the tests," Wang said in an interview late Wednesday with state China Central Television.

"Therefore, the reported new cases are just newly confirmed cases, and there could be more people out there."

Wang said the number of infected people was "unknowable" and the true scale of the epidemic unclear, adding that there was still a great risk of transmission by unquarantined people.

"Should there be no effective control measures, there's no way to predict such a turning point," he said. "In addition, the virus is likely to go on mutating, making it impossible to pinpoint its communicability and pathogenicity. Human migration and a warmer weather could also be influence factors."

On Tuesday, National Health Commission epidemiologist Li Lanjuan told CCTV that it would take up to six weeks to fully contain the epidemic and see a drop in infections.

Japan's Health Ministry said on Thursday it was encouraged by data showing most of the initial batch of patients diagnosed with coronavirus were recovering from the disease.

Out of 22 patients whose condition was listed on the ministry website, four have not developed symptoms, two are cured, seven are on the mend, five in stable condition and only four defined as "under treatment."

So far in Japan, 45 people have been confirmed as carrying the virus, including 20 passengers and crew from a quarantined cruise liner. All patients who still have the virus remain hospitalized.

Daigo Yamada, a section chief in the ministry's tuberculosis and infectious diseases control division, said that while the spread of the virus is worrying, the data were "encouraging."

"These are the facts, and a source of relief," he said. "And we haven't seen cases of people seriously ill or dying."

The figures coming from Japan support the idea that the virus may be more contagious than previously believed and very difficult to control, but less deadly than first believed and much less deadly than severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which left hundreds dead across Asia in 2002-3.

Another 10 people have tested positive for the coronavirus on board the quarantined cruise liner the Diamond Princess, moored at the Japanese port of Yokohama, Japan's Health Ministry said Thursday.

Princess Cruise Lines said the latest group to test positive included four Japanese passengers, one from Taiwan, two Americans, two Canadians and one from New Zealand, adding that they would be disembarked immediately and taken to local hospitals.

On Wednesday, the ship was placed in a 14-day quarantine after nine passengers and one crew member tested positive for the virus, out of 31 people whose test results were analyzed. That group composed of two Australian passengers, three Japanese, three from Hong Kong, and one American, as well as one Filipino crew member.

On Thursday, another 71 test results came back, showing another 10 people have the virus. A further 171 people on board have been tested for the virus - out of the total of 3,711 passengers and crew on board the ship. Their test results are still pending.

"The health and safety of our guests and crew remains our top priority," the company said in a statement. "We continue to work closely with the Japan Ministry of Health on all protocols and procedures while ensuring the comfort of our guests.

Passengers on board the vessel have been confined to their cabins during the quarantine period, but the crew are still working.

In parliament, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the quarantine would "in principle" end in 14 days, in line with advice from the World Health Organization, but added the ministry would conduct additional tests "as necessary," especially if one person fell ill inside a shared cabin.

"We are thinking of testing broadly, but there is a limit to how many we can process each day," he said. "Given that, we will give priority [to those in most need] and will respond to the situation thoroughly."

An auto factory in China said it is converting one of its plants to make face masks, to combat the growing shortage as the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

SAIC-GM-Wuling, a joint venture between General Motors and two Chinese carmakers, said it would set up 14 production lines in the city of Liuzhou in Guangxi province to make masks in a dust-free environment.

Four of the production lines will produce the N95 masks - which are believed to be more effective against virus-borne diseases but more difficult to breathe through - and 10 will produce general medical protective masks, the company said in a statement.

Production is expected to start this month and reach 1.7 million masks a day, to help to alleviate the shortage in Guangxi, the company said.

Masks are in extremely short supply all over China, with some cities introducing rationing or even lotteries to distribute limited inventory.

So intense is the shortage that the city of Dali in the southwestern province of Yunnan appropriated a delivery of nine parcels of masks from a supplier in the province that were intended for the megacity of Chongqing, where the shortage is acute.

When Chongqing new coronavirus epidemic prevention and control group wrote to Dali to ask for the masks, Dali's Health Commission responded that the masks had already been distributed and could not be given back, the Economic Observer reported.

In Hong Kong, a leading microbiologist and infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong has declared a community outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Hong Kong, as new cases continue to be discovered in the city, according to the South China Morning Post.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, who was part of the team that led the discovery of the severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS virus in 2003, said an increasing number of the city's confirmed coronavirus patients had not visited mainland China. According to the South China Morning Post, he is now warning that every possible measure must be taken to minimize the spread including further border closures.

"The local transmission chain has begun, and if we do nothing to control it, Hong Kong will become another mainland city that has suffered lots of cases," he said.

Hong Kong will start putting in place a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals from mainland China, a measure that will take effect on Saturday. Critics say the government should have acted sooner in locking down the border with mainland China, where thousands pass through every day, to prevent the spread of the virus. A medical workers strike, which has affected emergency services in the city and involved thousands of doctors and nurses, is ongoing in the hope of pressuring the government into a full closure of the border with mainland China.

Meanwhile, panic buying has gripped the city - not just for protective equipment like masks and alcohol-based sanitizer, but also basics like toilet paper, rice, pasta and instant noodles. Dozens of grocery stores across the territory were completely cleared out of these items on Wednesday and Thursday.

This article was written by Simon Denyer, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Lyric Li, Shibani Mahtani and Liu Yang contributed to this report.