China stepped up measures to contain a virus that has killed 26 people and infected more than 800, suspending public transport in 13 cities, shutting temples over the Lunar New Year, and rushing to construct a hospital to treat the infected.
The weeklong holiday to welcome in the Year of the Rat began on Friday, raising fears that the infection rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of people travel to their homes and abroad. The risks persuaded Shanghai Disneyland theme park to close from Saturday until further notice.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the new coronavirus an emergency for China on Thursday, but stopped short of declaring the epidemic of international concern.
While most of the cases and all of the deaths have been in China, the virus has been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. It was highly likely Britain also had cases, a health official said.
At the railway station in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began last month, the few passengers who took the risk of returning home put on a brave face.
“What choice do I have? It’s Chinese New Year. We have to see our family,” said one arriving traveller named Hu.
As of Thursday, there were 830 confirmed cases and 25 people had died, the National Health Commission.
Most cases have been in Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated in a market that traded illegally in wildlife. Preliminary research suggested it crossed to humans from snakes.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, and neighbouring Huanggang, a city of about 7 million, were in virtual lockdown. Rail stations were largely shut, with few trains stopping, flights suspended and checkpoints on main roads in and out.
About 10 people got off a high-speed train that pulled into Wuhan on Friday afternoon but nobody got on before it resumed its journey.
“I’m not afraid. I trust the government. I need to be with my family,” said one passenger, dragging two large cases out of the station. He declined to give his name.
Wuhan was building a 1,000-bed hospital for the infected and aimed to have it ready by Monday, the official Changjiang Daily reported.
Prefabricated buildings were going up around a holiday complex originally intended for workers, set in gardens by a lake on the outskirts of the city.
Television footage showed about 30 mechanical diggers clawing at brown earth preparing the site.
Wuhan hospitals called for donations of protective equipment such as masks and suits, as supplies ran low.
Several airlines have suspended flights to Wuhan while airports worldwide have stepped up the screening of passengers from China.
CHINA EMERGENCY, NOT GLOBAL
The WHO said on Thursday it was a “bit too early” to consider the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, a designation requiring countries to step up their response.
“Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
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. Most of those killed by the virus were elderly, many with pre-existing conditions, the WHO said.
Frustration with the government response appeared to be growing in Wuhan with some fearing it was too late.
“In the very beginning, they didn’t take action and hardly offered any information to the public,” a 30-year-old Wuhan resident, who declined to provide her name, told Reuters.
Three research teams are to start work on vaccines, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations said. The plan is to have at least one in clinical trials by June.
Some experts believe the virus is not as dangerous as the one that caused the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which also began in China and killed nearly 800 people, or the one that caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed more than 700 people since 2012.
TEMPLES, FORBIDDEN CITY, RAIL STATIONS SHUT
Chinese authorities have advised people to avoid crowds and 10 cities in the central province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, have suspended some transport, the Hubei Daily reported.
In Zhijiang city, all public venues have been shut except hospitals, some markets, petrol stations and drug stores, the paper reported.
Some famous temples have also closed, including Beijing’s Lama Temple, where people make offerings for the new year.
Beijing also cancelled two Lunar New Year temple fairs and closed the Forbidden City, its most famous tourist attraction.
Shanghai Disneyland will close from Saturday. The theme park has a 100,000 daily capacity and sold out during last year’s Lunar New Year holiday.
The virus is expected to dent China’s growth after months of economic worries over trade tensions with the United States.
A National Australia Bank research team estimated China’s gross domestic product growth for the first quarter could be hit by about 1 percentage point.