By Cate Cadell and David Stanway
Deaths from China’s new flu-like virus rose to 17 on Wednesday, with more than 540 cases confirmed, leading the city at the center of the outbreak to close transport networks and urge citizens not to leave as fears rose of the contagion spreading.
The previously unknown coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged from an animal market in the central city of Wuhan, and is suspected by Chinese officials to originate from illegally traded wildlife. Cases have been detected as far away as the United States.
Contrasting with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people, China’s communist government has this time given regular updates to try to avoid panic as millions travel for the Lunar New Year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been meeting in a high-tech room at its Geneva headquarters to decide whether the outbreak is a global health emergency. A decision is expected on Thursday.
Many Chinese were cancelling trips, buying face masks, avoiding public places such as cinemas and shopping centres, and even turning to an online plague simulation game or watching disaster movie “The Flu” as a way to cope.
“The best way to conquer fear is to confront fear,” said one commentator on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
Wuhan’s local government will close all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights from the city as of 10 a.m. on Jan. 23 (0200 GMT), state media reported. The government said citizens should not leave the city unless there were special circumstances.
The measure was intended to “effectively cut off the transmission of the virus, resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic, and ensure the health and safety of the people,” state media cited Wuhan’s virus taskforce as saying.
With more than 11 million people, Wuhan is central China’s main industrial and commercial centre and a transport hub, home to the country’s largest inland port and gateway to its Three Gorges hydroelectric dam.
The latest death toll in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, rose to 17 by midday on Wednesday, state television quoted the provincial government as saying.
Britain advised its citizens against all but essential travel to Wuhan.
However, the virus has already spread beyond the city to population centers including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong.
The official China Daily newspaper said 544 cases had now been confirmed in the country. Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.
U.S. President Donald Trump said U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a good containment plan. “We think it is going to be handled very well,” he said at Davos in Switzerland.
China’s National Health Commission Vice Minister Li Bin said the virus, which can cause pneumonia and has no effective vaccine, was being spread via breathing. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.
“I believe the government for sure, but I still feel fearful. Because there’s no cure for the virus,” said Fu Ning, a 36-year-old woman in Beijing. “You have to rely on your immunity if you get an infection. It sounds very scary.”
Fears of a pandemic initially spooked markets but they regained their footing on Wednesday, with investors citing the robust response from authorities as reassuring.
But companies across China, from Foxconn to Huawei Technologies and HSBC Holdings, warned staff to avoid Wuhan and handed out masks.
Terry Gou, founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, said he was advising employees not to visit China. Automaker General Motors Co, which operates a plant in Wuhan in a joint venture with China’s SAIC Motor, placed a temporary restriction on employees’ travel to Wuhan.
The chief executive of one of the world’s largest aircraft lessors, Aercap, said he expected the virus to impact Chinese airlines’ profitability in the first quarter.
The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) said in a risk assessment that further global spread of the virus was likely. “The likelihood of case importation is highest in countries with the greatest volume of people travelling to and from Wuhan,” the ECDC’s director Andrea Ammon said in a statement.
“If Wuhan is taking such drastic measures, we must assume widespread community transmission in this central China megacity & transport hub,” tweeted Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University Law School in Washington.
He said key questions remained over issues such as efficiency of human transmission and so-called “super spreader” events.
Li said there was no evidence of super-spreaders capable of disseminating the virus more widely, as happened during the SARS outbreak. SARS was thought to have crossed to humans from civet cats sold for food.
Airports globally stepped up screening from China.
Russia strengthened its sanitary and quarantine controls, Britain said it was starting enhanced monitoring of passengers from Wuhan, and Singapore started screening all passengers from China.
The Chinese-ruled gambling hub of Macau confirmed its first case of pneumonia linked to the coronavirus and tightened body-temperature screening measures.
A first case emerged in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, media reported, with the patient arriving via high-speed railway from the mainland, and Mexico was investigating a potential case.
North Korea banned foreign tourists, several foreign tour operators said. Some qualifying boxing matches for the 2020 Olympics set for Wuhan were cancelled and women’s football qualifiers were shifted to Nanjing.
(Reporting by Cate Cadell, Lusha Zhang, Yawen Chen and Jiang Xihao in Beijing, David Stanway in Shanghai, Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Josh Smith in Seoul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Alexandra Alper in Davos, Shreyashi Sanyal in Bangalore, Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne, Timothy Heritage and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Nick Macfie and Cynthia Osterman)