China’s Wuhan shuts down transport as global alarm mounts over virus spread

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China's Wuhan coronaviruses

The latest death toll in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, rose to 17

Deaths from China’s new flu-like virus rose to 17 on Wednesday, with more than 540 cases confirmed, leading the city at the centre 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 Organisation (WHO) has been meeting in a high-tech room at its Geneva headquarters to decide whether the outbreak is a global health emergency.

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.

The UK advised its citizens against all but essential travel to Wuhan.

However, the virus has already spread beyond the city to population centres 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.

WHO international public health emergencies

World Health Organisation (WHO) experts met on Wednesday to evaluate whether the new coronavirus outbreak constitutes an international emergency.

Only five such emergencies have been declared in the past decade: the H1 virus that caused an influenza pandemic (2009), West Africa’s Ebola outbreak (2013-2016), polio (2014), Zika virus (2016), and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2019).

Here are details:

SWINE FLU

The swine flu pandemic of 2009 killed an estimated 284,500 people, about 15 times the number confirmed by laboratory tests at the time, according an international group of scientists.

A 2012 study in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal said the toll might have been as many as 579,000 people. The original count, compiled by the WHO, put the number at 18,500. LINK

EBOLA IN WEST AFRICA

An Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia between 2013 to 2016 killed at least 11,300 people, more than all other known Ebola outbreaks combined.

It cost the economies of those three countries an estimated $53 billion, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. LINK

POLIO

In 2014, the WHO declared the resurgence of polio to be a public health emergency of international concern.

Pakistan’s failure to stem the spread of the disease triggered the global measures, which also applied to Syria and Cameroon. Polio cases in Pakistan rose from 58 in 2012 to 93 in 2013, more than a fifth of the world total of 417.

ZIKA

The WHO in 2016 declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern. Zika had spread to more than 60 countries and territories since the outbreak was identified in Brazil in 2015. LINK

By November 2016, when the WHO declared an end to the Zika emergency, there had been some 2,300 confirmed cases worldwide of babies born with microcephaly, most in Brazil.

Microcephaly is a condition marked by abnormally small heads that can lead to developmental problems.

EBOLA IN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

The WHO’s Emergency Committee on Ebola declared the outbreak an international emergency in July last year.

By Jan. 14, there had been 3,406 cases of Ebola, including 2,236 deaths, in the outbreak declared in August 2018 which WHO has said will have cost $1 billion by the time it is halted.

(Compiled by Giles Elgood)

What we know about the new coronavirus

RESPIRATORY THREAT

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.

GLOBAL PRECAUTIONS

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.

UK to tackle coronavirus with separate arrival area at Heathrow

Heathrow Airport will introduce separate areas for passengers travelling from regions that have been affected by the new flu-like coronavirus in China, UK transport minister Grant Shapps said on Wednesday.

Heathrow is Europe’s busiest airport and while the risk to the UK population still remains low, over 200,000 passengers pass through the UK hub each day, with 17 flights arriving from China at Heathrow on Wednesday.

The new measures for arrivals will only apply to flights from the Chinese city of Wuhan to London Heathrow, reported the BBC. There is one flight due from Wuhan at 1830 GMT on Wednesday according to Heathrow’s website.

“This is to ensure that when flights come in directly to Heathrow there is a separate area for people to arrive in,” Shapps said.

Wuhan is the epicentre of the outbreak of the virus which can pass between humans and has since spread to other Chinese cities as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

It has claimed nine lives in China where officials say there are 440 confirmed cases.

Shapps told Sky News he was keeping a close eye on the virus, adding that health authority Public Health England would upgrade the risk to the UK population from very low to low.

(Reporting by Sarah Young; editing by Kate Holton)

AUTHORITIES INVESTIGATING ORIGIN

Chinese authorities are trying to determine the origin of the virus, which they say came from a market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally. The World Health Organization (WHO) says an animal appears most likely to be the primary source.

China’s National Health Commission Vice Minister Li Bin told reporters there was evidence of respiratory transmission of the virus from patient to patient. Chinese authorities say 15 medical staff have been infected.

Some experts say the virus may not be as deadly as other coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people during a 2002-2003 outbreak also originating from China.

COUNTER-MEASURES

There is no vaccine for the new virus, which China says is mutating. Symptoms include fever, cough and difficulty in breathing.

Chinese authorities have stepped up monitoring and disinfection efforts ahead of the Lunar New Year break that starts on Jan. 24.

They have also advised people to not travel to Wuhan and also asked Wuhan residents to remain there.

Airports in the United States and Britain, as well as many Asian countries, including Japan, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, stepped up screening of passengers from Wuhan. Russia strengthened sanitary and quarantine controls at entry points.

Taiwan advised people not to visit Wuhan unless absolutely necessary and suspended Wuhan tourist groups from visiting the island.

The WHO sent directives to hospitals around the world on infection prevention and control. An emergency committee of experts met on Wednesday in Geneva to assess whether the outbreak constitutes an international emergency.

PUBLIC, COMPANIES REACT

While the WHO has yet to recommend trade or travel restrictions, some Chinese travel booking platforms and airlines have offered free cancellations for Wuhan trips.

Beyond Wuhan, some Chinese have begun cancelling travel plans for the Lunar New Year and avoiding public areas like cinemas and shopping centres. Companies are handing out masks and warning staff to avoid Wuhan.

Shanghai’s Disneyland will waive some rescheduling fees for customers who change travel plans. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd will let passengers to Wuhan change or cancel flights without charge through Feb. 15 and permit cabin crew to wear masks on flights to the mainland.

By Cate Cadell and David Stanway

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