Hubei has been sealed off for nearly a two weeks as China battles virus that has shut down cities and prompted airlifts.

The death toll from a new coronavirus in mainland China jumped by 73 to 563 on Thursday, its third-consecutive record daily rise, as experts stepped up efforts to find a vaccine for a disease that has shut down Chinese cities and forced thousands of others into quarantine around the world.

Hubei province, the epicentre of the epidemic, reported 70 new deaths on Wednesday and 2,987 new confirmed cases. The other fatalities were in Tianjin city, the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and Guizhou province in the southwest.

Hubei in central China has been almost sealed off for nearly two weeks with its railway stations and airports shut and roads blocked. The flu-like virus was first identified in Hubei’s provincial capital of Wuhan and is believed to have originated at a seafood market in the city.

There have been two deaths outside mainland China – in the Philippines and Hong Kong – involving people who had been to Wuhan.

Hundreds of foreigners have been evacuated from the city and placed in quarantine centres around the world and thousands of passengers and crew were being confined to two cruise ships in Japan and Hong Kong.

Ten more people on the Diamond Princess in the Japanese port of Yokohama, south of Tokyo had tested positive for the coronavirus, the Japanese health ministry said, bringing the total number of cases on board to 20.

About 3,700 people are facing at least two weeks quarantined on the liner after an 80-year-old Hong Kong man who travelled on it late last month tested positive.

Al Jazeera’s Fadi Salameh, who is in Yokohama, said the authorities would be delivering 7,000 masks to those on board.  

“Experts are worried the virus could spread in such a congested and enclosed space,” he said. “They have also advised passengers not to leave their rooms.”  

Some of the passengers were hopeful they would be evacuated.

“It’s better for us to travel while healthy and also if we get sick to be treated in American hospitals,” Gay Courter, a 75-year-old American novelist on board the ship, told Reuters.

In Hong Kong, 3,600 passengers and crew remain quarantined on their ship – the World Dream – after three people on board were found to have coronavirus.

Bans and evacuations

In the United States, an additional 350 American evacuees from Wuhan were placed under quarantine at two military bases in California, bringing to nearly 400 the number of people subject to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) – first public health quarantine in 50 years.

“We are in a critical time period in the international spread of the virus and this action is necessary to try to prevent the spread here,” said Dr Christopher Braden, deputy director of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.

More than two dozen airlines have suspended or restricted flights to China and several countries, including the US, have banned entry to anyone who has been in China over the previous two weeks.

Hong Kong has said all visitors from mainland China would be quarantined for two weeks, while Taiwan extended a ban on entry to foreigners who had been to mainland China in the past 14 days to include those from Hong Kong and Macau.

Hundreds of experts will gather in Geneva on February 11 and 12 in an attempt to find a way to fight back against the outbreak by accelerating research into drugs and vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. A multinational WHO-led team would go to China “very soon”, it added.

Asked about reports of “drug breakthroughs”, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said: “There are no known effective therapeutics against this 2019-nCoV (virus).”

While most people infected with the virus recover quickly with only mild symptoms, the virus can lead to pneumonia and other severe respiratory illnesses. It is still too early to know what the infection’s death rate will be since there are likely to be many cases of milder disease going undetected.

China’s National Health Commission said a further 3,694 coronavirus cases were reported throughout the country on February 5, bringing the total to 28,018. It was the first day in a week where new daily cases in have gone down in China.

There were 258 cases reported in 31 other countries and regions outside mainland China, according to a Reuters tally based on official statements.

China has bristled at some international measures to close borders to Chinese travellers.

“The Chinese people are using all their strength to fight the epidemic and we are fully confident and capable of winning the battle of epidemic prevention and control,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said, according to a ministry statement.