China stepped up measures to contain a virus which has killed 25 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.
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.
As of Thursday, there were 830 confirmed cases and 25 people had died, 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.
Preliminary research suggested that in the most recent stage of its evolution, the Wuhan virus was passed on to humans from snakes.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and a major transport hub, is in a virtual lockdown.
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.
Neighbouring Huanggang, a city of about 7 million people, has announced similar measures.
Wuhan was 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.
Non-fatal cases have also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States, prompting several airlines to suspend flights to and from Wuhan.
But WHO said on Thursday that it was a “bit too early” to consider the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”. Such a designation would have required 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,” said a rail passenger told Reuters as he alighted a train at Macheng, the station just before Wuhan.
The virus has caused alarm because it is still too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. And because it is new, humans have not been able to build any immunity to it.
Here is what we know so far:
– Chinese state television reported on Thursday there were 634 cases in China. Authorities have confirmed 18 deaths.
– The previously unknown strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in Wuhan.
– Thailand has reported four cases, Japan and Vietnam two apiece, and South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and the United States one each. A second possible case was being tested in the United States and the BBC reported five people being tested in Scotland. Patients in these cases were either residents of Wuhan or recent visitors to the city.
– The World Health Organization said on Thursday that while the outbreak was an emergency for China and the agency was tracking the evolution ‘every minute’, it was not yet a global health emergency.
– Symptoms include fever, cough and difficulty breathing.
– China says the virus is mutating and that there is evidence of respiratory transmission.
– Those most affected are older people and those with underlying health conditions.
– 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.
– Preliminary research suggests the virus was passed to humans from snakes, but Chinese government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan has also identified badgers and rats as possible sources.
– Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, is on lockdown, with urban transport shut and outgoing flights suspended.
– Nearby Huanggang, a city of 7 million people, is suspending public transport and closing public venues, including movie theatres and internet cafes.
– Beijing closed tourist access to the Forbidden City and cancelled large gatherings, including two Lunar New Year temple fairs.
– Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers who have travelled to China.
– Equities markets around the world fell on Thursday, led by the biggest decline in Chinese stocks in more than eight months, as concern mounted about the spread of the virus.