China locks down city of 11 million at epicentre of virus outbreak

Passengers wear masks
REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

China is putting on lockdown a city of 11 million people considered the epicentre of a new coronavirus outbreak that has killed 17 and infected nearly 600, as health authorities around the world scramble to prevent a global pandemic.

Health officials fear the transmission rate will accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during week-long holidays for the Lunar New Year, which begins on Saturday.

Authorities confirmed 571 cases and 17 deaths, China’s National Health Commission said.

Of eight known cases worldwide, Thailand has confirmed four, while Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States have reported one each.

The previously unknown virus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in China’s central city of Wuhan.

Preliminary research suggested the virus was passed on to humans from snakes, but government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan has also identified badgers and rats as possible sources. Confirmed sufferers include 15 medical workers.

There is no vaccine for the virus, which can spread through the respiratory transmission. Symptoms include fever, difficulty in breathing and cough, similar to many other respiratory illnesses.

In a report on Wednesday, Imperial College London said it estimated a total of 4,000 cases of the coronavirus in Wuhan alone as of Jan. 18, an infection rate based on the number of cases reported in China and elsewhere.

VIRUS SPREADING

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it will decide on Thursday whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, which would step up the international response.

If it does so, it will be the sixth international public health emergency to be declared in the last decade.

Some experts believe the new virus is not as dangerous as previous coronaviruses such as SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has killed more than 700 people since 2012.

FLIGHTS, RAIL SUSPENDED

Taiwan’s China Airlines said it had suspended flights to Wuhan and Hong Kong’s MTR Corp said it had suspended sales of high-speed rail tickets to and from Wuhan.

Airports globally stepped up screening of passengers from China and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) said the further global spread of the virus was likely.