China virus: ten cities locked down and Beijing festivities scrapped

Lily Kuo in Beijing and agencies

Chinese authorities have imposed lockdown measures on ten cities in an unprecedented effort to contain the outbreak of the deadly new virus that has made hundreds of people ill and spread to other parts of the world during the busy lunar new year travel period.

Authorities banned transport links from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, on Thursday morning, suspending buses, subways, ferries, and shutting the airport and train stations to outgoing passengers. Later in the day, the nearby central Chinese cities of Huanggang and Ezhou announced similar measures. Travel restrictions were also placed on the smaller cities of Chibi and Zhijiang.

Starting at midnight, long-distance buses, the rapid transit system, and the train station in Huanggang would be shut, according to a notice from the local government. Cinemas, internet cafes and other entertainment venues would all stop operating. Residents should not leave the city, except for “special reasons”.

A government notice in Ezhou said the city’s railway would stop operating on Thursday evening. In nearby Chibi, authorities said buses and rural transport links would be halted. Officials also ordered tour operators to cancel operations and said no more large-scale cultural events were to be held.

On Friday, Huangshi in Hubei province also halted public transport. The People’s Daily newspaper said Xiantao, Enshi, Qianjiang and Xianning were also subject to travel restrictions.

There have been 830 confirmed cases in China of the coronavirus, from the same family of viruses that gave rise to Sars. Chinese authorities say 95 patients remain in a critical condition.

On Thursday, Hebei’s provincial health authority said an infected patient had died, marking the first confirmed death outside Hubei province, where the outbreak began. On Friday morning the official death toll rose to 25.

Graphic.

Cases have also been confirmed in the US, the UK, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore.

Officials worry the weeklong lunar new year holiday, which begins on Saturday and usually sees hundreds of millions of Chinese crisscross the country, will exacerbate an outbreak that has reached almost all of China’s provinces.

The state-run Beijing News said the capital had cancelled events including two well-known lunar new year temple fairs. The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing that is now a museum, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.

The country’s railway operator, China State Railway Group, said passengers would be able to receive full refunds on tickets nationwide starting on Friday.

While sweeping measures are typical of China’s communist government, large-scale quarantines are rare around the world, even in deadly epidemics, because of concerns about infringing on people’s liberties, and the effectiveness of such measures is unclear.

“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, told the Associated Press. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”

Late on Thursday Wuhan city authorities said that limits on car travel would be introduced for the first time at noon on Friday.

In Wuhan, supermarket shelves were empty and local markets sold out of produce as residents hoarded supplies and isolated themselves at home. Petrol stations were overwhelmed as drivers stocked up on fuel, exacerbated by rumours that reserves had run out. Local residents said pharmacies had sold out of face masks.

“When I saw the news when I woke up, I felt like I was going to go crazy. This is a little too late now. The government’s measures are not enough,” said Xiao, 26, a primary schoolteacher in Wuhan, who asked not to give her full name.

Barricades block access to the closed Hankou railway station in Wuhan. Photograph: AP

Anxiety in Wuhan has been exacerbated by reports that hospitals are turning patients away because they do not have enough room. A hospital contacted by the Guardian on Thursday said it had between 500 and 600 patients and recommended patients go to a community health centre instead. Eight hospitals in Wuhan put out calls for donations of protective equipment, according to Chinese media.

Officials said they would build a new hospital in six days to accommodate patients, modelled after an isolation facility constructed in Beijing during the Sars outbreak.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?


It's a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.


What other coronaviruses have there been?


Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. Chinese authorities initially played Sars cases down, and were subsequently much criticised because the virus spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.


What are the symptoms caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?


The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. Antiviral drugs may be used, but usually only lessen the severity of symptoms. 


Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?


China’s health ministry has confirmed human-to-human transmission. As of 23 January the Chinese authorities had acknowledged 571 cases and 17 deaths. Those who have died are known to have been already in poor health - but mild cases may not be reported at all.


How worried are the experts?


There are fears that the coronavirus may spread more widely during the Chinese new year holidays at the end of January, when millions of people travel home to celebrate. At the moment, it appears that people in poor health are at greatest risk, as is always the case with flu. But the authorities will be anxious that the virus will become more potent than so far appears and will be keen to stop the spread.

Sarah Boseley Health editor


Hubei officials said schools, on break for the spring festival holiday, would delay the beginning of the spring term.

The illnesses from the newly identified coronavirus appeared last month in Wuhan, an industrial and transportation hub in central China. The vast majority of cases in the mainland have been in the city.

Map

Analysts have predicted the reported cases will continue to multiply. “Even if [the number of cases] are in the thousands, this would not surprise us,” Galea said. The number of cases was not an indicator of the outbreak’s severity, so long as the mortality rate remained low, he added.

The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the Sars outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed about 800 people, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome which developed from camels.

China is keen to avoid repeating mistakes with its handling of Sars. For months, even after the illness had spread around the world, China parked patients in hotels and drove them around in ambulances to conceal the true number of cases and avoid WHO experts.

In the current outbreak, China has been credited with sharing information rapidly, and President Xi Jinping has emphasised that as a priority.

On Thursday a WHO committee said the outbreak does not yet constitute a public health emergency of international concern. Previous emergencies have included Ebola and Zika.

Associated Press contributed to this report