National News

Two cities locked down, virus kills 17

China has put on lockdown two cities at the epicentre of a new coronavirus outbreak that has killed 17 people 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.

Beijing news outlets are reporting that the city is cancelling major public events including Chinese New Year temple fairs over the outbreak.

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

Most transport in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was suspended on Thursday morning and people were told not to leave. Hours later, neighbouring Huanggang, a city of some seven million people, announced a similar lockdown.

"The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history, so it is certainly not a recommendation the WHO has made," Gauden Galea, the World Health Organisation's representative in Beijing, told Reuters

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

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.

The 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.

Chinese authorities gave no new details on the numbers of virus infections but it has been reported in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and several other countries including the United States, stoking fears it is already spreading worldwide.

Wuhan's city government said it would shut down all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights from 10am. Domestic media said some airlines were operating after the deadline, however.

As the city slipped into isolation, residents thronged into hospitals for checks and scrambled for supplies, clearing out supermarket shelves and queuing for petrol.

Authorities in Huanggang ordered indoor entertainment venues including cinemas and internet cafes to close and were asking citizens not to leave other than under special circumstances.

Authorities had confirmed 571 cases and 17 deaths by the end of Wednesday, China's National Health Commission said. Earlier, it said another 393 suspected cases had been reported.

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

In a report on Wednesday, Imperial College London said it estimated a total of 4000 cases of the coronavirus in Wuhan alone as of January 18, an infection rate based on the number of cases reported in China and elsewhere.

In contrast with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people, China's Communist Party government has provided regular updates to avoid panic ahead of the holidays.

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.

"The early evidence at this stage would suggest it's not as severe," Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told reporters.

Despite China's response, stock markets across Asia were on the back foot on Thursday, led by drops of roughly 1.5 per cent in Hong Kong and Shanghai while China's yuan fell to a two-week low.

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

© DPA 2020