China banned trains and planes from leaving a major city at the center of a virus outbreak on Thursday, seeking to seal off its 11 million people to contain the contagious disease that has claimed 17 lives, infected hundreds and spread to other countries.
Authorities in Wuhan, a major transport hub, also suspended public buses and subways, and said residents should not leave “without a special reason”.
More than 570 people have been infected with the virus across China – with most cases found in Wuhan, where a seafood market that illegally sold wild animals has been identified as the epicenter of the outbreak.
The coronavirus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
Like SARS, it can be passed among people through the respiratory tract.
Wuhan residents shared their anguish on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, with one describing being on the “verge of tears” when the de facto quarantine was announced.
“We are feeling as though it is the end of the world,” said another on Weibo, voicing concerns about shortages of food and disinfectant.
“We really need everyone’s help.”
Wuhan’s train station was almost empty except for workers and about a dozen people lining up for taxis, all of whom were wearing masks, according to an AFP reporter.
The first case of the new virus was confirmed on December 31, and it has since been detected in Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States.
The World Health Organization on Wednesday delayed a decision on whether to declare a global health emergency – a rare instrument used only for the worst outbreaks.
The emergency committee will meet again on Thursday, after its chair, Didier Houssin, said the experts were split over declaring a public health emergency.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “more information” was needed but he also praised China’s “very, very strong measures”.
“By having a strong action not only will they control the outbreak in their country but they will also minimise the chances of this outbreak spreading internationally,” Tedros said when asked about Wuhan’s transport shutdown.
With hundreds of millions of people travelling across China this week for the Lunar New Year holiday, the National Health Commission announced on Wednesday measures to curb the disease nationwide — including sterilisation and ventilation at airports and bus stations, as well as inside planes and trains.
Wuhan’s special anti-virus command center said the quarantine measures were meant to “effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb the outbreak and guarantee the people’s health and safety,” according to state media.
While departures were banned, trains and planes were still allowed into the city.
On one inbound train, the few passengers aboard heading ahead of the Lunar New Year were wearing masks.
“I wanted to go home,”a 28-year-old man surnamed Fang on a train from Shanghai to Wuhan told AFP.
The city’s tourism and culture department cancelled all group tours until February 8, according to state media.
The city has also cancelled large public events for the Lunar New Year holiday, which starts Friday.
Authorities made it mandatory to wear a mask in public places in the city.
“Those who disregard the warning will be punished according to relevant laws and regulations,” the city government warned, according to state media.
Animals are suspected to be the primary source of the outbreak, with Chinese health officials saying that the virus originated from the market where wild animals were illegally sold.
Studies published this week suggest that the virus may have originated in bats or snakes.
The WHO has confirmed that the virus can be passed between people, at least those in close contact, and Chinese health officials said Wednesday it could mutate and spread further.
And authorities have conceded they do not yet know the full extent of the crisis.
“There are many unknowns to address in this event including clinical severity and the true extent and nature of disease transmission,” said Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies programme.
Chinese authorities on Thursday reported dozens of new infections, bringing the confirmed total to 571. About 5,000 people remain under medical observation.
Countries have intensified efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen – known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
Passengers are facing screening measures at five US airports and a host of transport hubs across Asia.
European airports from London to Moscow have also stepped up checks and Nigeria, which has many citizens working in China, said it would start checks at entry points.
In Australia, passengers on one of the last flights out of Wuhan said they were met by biosecurity officials who briefed them on the symptoms of the virus.
Tedros, the WHO chief, on Wednesday indicated the situation was not escalating out of control, saying there was “stability” for the moment.
“We don’t see any significant variation but at the same time we also believe that we have to be cautious,” he said.
Tedros also praised China’s openness about the outbreak as “commendable”.
But a senior US State Department official said Washington was “still concerned” about transparency in the Chinese government.
During the SARS epidemic, the Chinese government took months to report the disease and initially denied WHO experts access to southern Guangdong province, where it originated.
Reporting by AFP
Image: Chinese paramilitary police wearing masks stand guard at a Shanghai train station as the country faces a virus crisis at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday (AFP/HECTOR RETAMAL)