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China expands transport lockdowns and scraps New Year festivities as virus toll rises

Security guards patrol outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market where the coronavirus was detected.
Security guards patrol outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market where the coronavirus was detected. © Hector RETAMAL/AFP

China will take stricter and more targeted measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, state television reported, citing a state council meeting on virus control on Friday. The virus has killed 26 people and infected more than 800, with public transport suspensions in 10 cities, temples shutting, and the rapid construction of a new hospital to treat those infected. 

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday declared the new coronavirus an emergency for China but stopped short of declaring the epidemic of international concern.

Health authorities fear the infection rate could accelerate over the Lunar New Year, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during week-long holidays, which began on Friday.

There were 830 confirmed cases and 26 people had died as of Thursday, according to the National Health Commission. Most cases are in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated in a market which traded in illegal wildlife.

Rail stations were shut, although trains were allowed to pass through the city, flights were suspended, and there were checkpoints on main roads in and out of the city.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and a major transport hub, is in a virtual lockdown.

Neighbouring Huanggang, a city of about 7 million people, has announced similar measures.

“We’re seeing the full strength of the Chinese authorities on display here with the effort to try and contain this coronavirus,” said FRANCE 24’s Charles Pellegrin, reporting from Beijing Friday. “All these festivities for the Lunar New Year have been cancelled, including things like temple fairs, which are gatherings where sometimes hundreds of thousands of people gather in parks near temples to eat, get together and watch dragon dances. These are moments that really mark the New Year, the passing of time. Those are cancelled in Wuhan but also in other places like the capital, Beijing. Another strong symbol is the fact that the Forbidden City in the heart of the capital will be shut in the holiday period.

“That would be like closing the Louvre during the Christmas period,” Pellegrin said.

 

Wuhan is building a new 1,000-bed hospital to treat those infected, the official Changjiang Daily reported on Friday.

Building machinery, including 35 diggers and 10 bulldozers, arrived at the site on Thursday night, with the aim to get the new facility ready by Monday.

Preliminary research suggested that in the most recent stage of its evolution, the Wuhan virus was passed on to humans from snakes.

Non-fatal cases have also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US, prompting several airlines to suspend flights to and from Wuhan.

‘This is an emergency in China’

The WHO said on Thursday that it was a "bit too early" to give the outbreak an official designation of a "public health emergency of international concern" (PHEIC). Such a designation would require countries to step up the international response.

"Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"It has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one," he said.

The previously unknown virus, which has no cure and can spread through respiratory transmission, has created alarm because there are a number of unknowns. It is too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads.

Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and coughing.

Three research teams are to start work on developing potential vaccines, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations said. The plan is to have at least one potential vaccine in clinical trials by June.

Some experts believe the new virus is not as dangerous as the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has killed more than 700 people since 2012.

"I’m not scared. It isn’t as serious as everyone is making out. I’ve come back from the United States and I don’t think it is that bad," a rail passenger told Reuters as he alighted from a train at Macheng, the station just before Wuhan.

 

Lockdowns should be 'strictly time-limited'

Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns of the cities will last. While sweeping measures are typical of China's Communist Party-led government, large-scale quarantines are rare around the world, even in deadly epidemics, because of concerns about infringing on people's liberties. And the effectiveness of such measures is unclear.

Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the lockdowns appear to be justified scientifically.

“Until there's a better understanding of what the situation is, I think it's not an unreasonable thing to do,” he said. “Anything that limits people's travels during an outbreak would obviously work.” 

But Ball cautioned that any such quarantine should be strictly time-limited. He added: “You have to make sure you communicate effectively about why this is being done. Otherwise you will lose the goodwill of the people.”

The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries, as well as Middle East respiratory syndrome, which is thought to have originated from camels. 

The first cases in the Wuhan outbreak late last month were connected to a seafood market, and experts suspect transmission began from wild animals sold there. The market is closed for investigation.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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