coronavirus: China death toll hits over 700 as cruise ship faces two-week quarantine

China turns to AI, data in fight against virus

Beijing (AFP) - The death toll from China's coronavirus outbreak rose to 717 on Saturday as the country seethes over an epidemic that claimed the life of a popular doctor and created global panic.

The toll has now surpassed the number of people who died in mainland China and Hong Kong during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, after another 81 people succumbed to the illness in central Hubei province.

More than 34,000 people have been infected in China by the new strain, which is believed to have emerged in a market that sold exotic animals in Hubei's capital, Wuhan, late last year.

Chinese researchers said Friday that the pangolin -- an endangered species whose scales are used in traditional medicine and meat sold in black markets -- may have been a carrier of the disease that jumped to humans.

The virus has since spread across China, prompting the government to lock down cities with tens of millions of people, and panic has spiralled around the globe as more than 240 cases have emerged in two dozen countries.

Hong Kong, which has been hardening its defences, was to begin mandatory quarantine for those arriving from mainland China beginning Saturday, warning that anyone caught breaching the new rules faces up to six months in prison.

Two cruise ships carrying thousands of holidaymakers in Hong Kong and Japan have been placed under quarantine as authorities test people for infections.

On Friday, another 41 people tested positive aboard the Diamond Princess in Japan, bringing the total number of infected cases on the ship to 61.

Passengers aboard the Diamond Princess have been asked to stay inside their cabins to prevent new infections, and have expressed confusion and frustration about a quarantine expected to last until February 19.

Another cruise ship carrying a passenger suspected of infection with coronavirus will not be allowed to dock in southern Japan, the government said.

In Hong Kong, 3,600 people were confined aboard the World Dream, where eight former passengers have tested positive for the virus.

- Hero doctor -

One of the latest victims of the epidemic was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who was reprimanded by police in Wuhan after he sent a message to colleagues in December to sound the alarm about the virus.

His death on Friday at the age of 34 sparked a rare outpouring of grief and anger on social media over the government's handling of the crisis.

He contracted the disease while treating a patient and was lionised as a "hero" while people on Twitter-like Weibo railed against "fat officials" and demanded "freedom of speech".

The government expressed condolences to his family and ordered an investigation.

Li's death has also highlighted the enormous risks that frontline doctors have taken to treat patients in overwhelmed and under-equipped hospitals in Wuhan, the quarantined city of 11 million people where the virus emerged.

Hospitals are understaffed and medical staff lack sufficient protective gear, according to Hubei authorities.

Forty health care workers were infected with the novel coronavirus by patients at a single Wuhan hospital in January, according to a study.

Authorities in Wuhan are "combing" communities to find people suspected or confirmed to have the virus and place them in quarantine, state media said.

- Xi, Trump talk -

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump spoke on the phone about the health emergency on Friday.

Xi urged Trump to respond "reasonably" to the epidemic. The United States is among the countries that have banned arrivals from China.

"We talked about, mostly about the coronavirus. They're working really hard and I think they're doing a very professional job," Trump told reporters at the White House.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would offer up to $100 million to China and other impacted countries to combat the fast-spreading coronavirus.

China turns to AI, data in fight against virus

A man who had travelled to Wuhan -- the central city at the heart of China's coronavirus crisis –- was surprised when police showed up at his door after he returned home, asking to check his temperature.

The man, who had quarantined himself at home in Nanjing, eastern Jiangsu province, said he had not told anyone about his recent trip to the city.

But by trawling through travel data from Wuhan, local authorities were able to identify him and dispatch officers to his home last week, according to a newspaper article posted by the Nanjing government.

As Chinese authorities race to contain the spread of a new virus, which has infected more than 34,000 people and killed more than 700 in China, Beijing is turning to a familiar set of tools to find and prevent potential infections: data tracking and artificial intelligence.

Several Chinese tech firms have developed apps to help people check if they have taken the same flight or train as confirmed virus patients, scraping data from lists published by state media.

In Guangzhou, southern Guangdong province, robots at one public plaza have even been deployed to scold passersby who are not wearing masks, according to the state-run Global Times.

And in Beijing, one neighbourhood committee responsible for an apartment complex of about 2,400 households said they used flight and train data to keep track of everyone's recent travel record.

"Use big data technology to track, screen priority (cases), and effectively forecast the development of the epidemic in real time," China's National Health Commission (NHC) told local governments in an online statement Tuesday.

"Strengthen the information link between... public security and transportation, and other departments," it said, urging them to share train, flight, communication, and medical data.

- Fever tech -

As Chinese authorities search for potential infections, a point of focus has been detecting fevers, a common symptom of the disease.

While neighbourhoods and office buildings rely primarily on hand-held thermometers, public transport hubs are also trialling fever detection systems that use artificial intelligence and infrared cameras.

In Beijing, a system developed by Chinese search giant Baidu screens travellers at the Qinghe railway station using infrared and face detection technology, which automatically photographs each person's face.

If someone has a body temperature of 37.3 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit) or above, the system sets off an alarm -- prompting a secondary check by station staff.

On Thursday, railway personnel, clutching red-and-white megaphones, ordered passengers arriving from northern Shanxi province to slow down as they passed by Baidu's system.

According to the company, its system can check more than 200 people a minute, far faster than the thermal scanners used at airports.

Megvii, an AI firm that was blacklisted by the US in October over alleged rights abuses, has developed a similar system, which is currently being used at a subway station in Beijing.

"Having a team of nearly 100 people working together remotely from home hasn't been easy," said a spokesperson at Megvii in an emailed statement.

"All of them are working around the clock during Lunar New Year public holidays," said the company, adding that the team had to optimise its models to "effectively detect temperature with only the forehead exposed."

- Five million travellers -

Besides fever detection, Chinese tech firms have raced to develop a wide variety of services to help with epidemic control efforts, from preparing drone deliveries of medical supplies to mapping the spread of the virus from Wuhan.

Although the city has been under effective quarantine since January 23, some five million travellers left Wuhan during the Lunar New Year festival, according to the city mayor -- galvanising a nationwide search for recent Wuhan visitors.

Still, the majority of tracking carried out by local authorities in China requires a lot of manpower, though some are entering data online to help with registration, especially as residents return after the holiday.

In Beijing, some neighbourhoods are prompting residents to scan a QR code to fill out personal details, such as their phone number and hometown address.

One form also prompted participants to fill out details on their mode of transport, such as their licence plate or flight number, if they had travelled.

It also asked if they had "recently" visited central Hubei province -- where Wuhan is located -- or come into contact with anyone from the hard-hit region.

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