The Chinese authorities are using a potentially risky strategy to help identify coronavirus patients by stopping the sales of fever and cough medicines to force people to go to hospital rather than self-medicate.

The death toll from the virus, which can cause breathing difficulties, has topped 1000 with the number of infections soaring past 45,000.

At least three Chinese cities have announced over the past week that they will ban the sales of medicines that treat two of the main symptoms of the virus — fever and cough — to smoke out anyone trying to mask their illness at home.

People line up to buy face masks at a pharmacy in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang Province, last month. Photo / AP
People line up to buy face masks at a pharmacy in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang Province, last month. Photo / AP

The cities include Hangzhou in the east, which has almost 10 million residents and 157 confirmed cases.

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It announced on February 7 that retail pharmacies would not be able to sell 106 types of medicines, including both Western and traditional Chinese options.

The measures target drugs containing codeine, ibuprofen and aspirin in particular, and extends to online sales.

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Since last month, several provinces have mandated that pharmacies record the identities, contact details and body temperatures of anyone purchasing fever or cough medicines.

The move comes amid fears that the true spread of the virus remains unknown.

However, critics of the tough new rules argue that forcing patients who genuinely have seasonal coughs into hospitals for treatment puts them more at risk of contracting the virus.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organisation chief, has appealed for the speeding up of research into drugs and vaccines.

Hangzhou is one of three cities in China that has announced it will ban the sales of cough and fever medicine. Photo / AP
Hangzhou is one of three cities in China that has announced it will ban the sales of cough and fever medicine. Photo / AP

"With 99 per cent of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world," Dr Tedros told researchers gathered in Geneva.

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However, one of China's most senior medical advisers gave cause for hope after he said a fall in the number of cases in some places indicated the virus could peak later this month.

"I hope this outbreak or this event may be over in something like April," said Zhong Nanshan, 83, an epidemiologist who won fame for his role in combating an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, in an interview with Reuters.

So far only 319 cases have been confirmed in 24 other countries and territories outside mainland China, and only two deaths — in the Philippines and Hong Kong.

Community health workers check the temperature of a person who recently returned from Hubei Province, in Hangzhou. Photo / AP
Community health workers check the temperature of a person who recently returned from Hubei Province, in Hangzhou. Photo / AP

The densely populated Asian financial hub, which was badly hit by Sars in 2003, remains on high alert and infections have now hit 49.

Dozens of residents in Hong Mei House, an apartment building in the New Territories area of the city, have been put into quarantine after the authorities found that two people living on different floors were infected. Three more people linked to the second patient have tested positive.

The first two cases, which occurred 10 floors apart, raised fears that the virus could have spread through the building, perhaps through a pipe.

The quarantine on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan is continuing.

Some 174 people have now tested positive on board and passengers are complaining of "cabin fever". Crew are begging to be let off the ship before they get infected.