Image: Wuhan, China. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Deaths from China’s new flu-like virus rose to 17 on Wednesday with more than 470 confirmed cases, heightening global fears of contagion from an infection suspected to have come from animals.
The previously unknown and contagious coronavirus strain emerged from the central city of Wuhan, with cases now detected as far away as the United States. Officials believe the origin to be a market where wildlife is traded illegally.
Contrasting with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people, China has this time given regular updates to try and head off panic as millions travel at home and abroad for the Lunar New Year.
“The rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading,” National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin acknowledged.
The World Health Organization (WHO) began an emergency meeting to rule if the outbreak was a global health emergency.
Amid official exhortations to stay calm, many Chinese were cancelling trips, buying face masks, avoiding public places like cinemas and shopping centers, 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.
The virus has spread from Wuhan around China to major population centers including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong, with 473 cases confirmed in the country. Abroad, Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.
President Donald Trump said the United States’ 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.
Li said the virus, which can cause pneumonia, was being spread via breathing. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. About 2,200 people in contact with infected people were in isolation.
There is no vaccine for the virus.
“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, with aviation and luxury goods stocks hit and the yuan falling, but they were regaining their footing on Wednesday in approval of China’s containment response.
Across China, companies from Foxconn to Huawei Technologies and HSBC Holdings were warning staff to avoid Wuhan and handing out masks. Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, said he was advising employees not to visit China.
With more than 11 million people, Wuhan is central China’s main industrial and commercial center and an important transport hub, home to the country’s largest inland port and gateway to its giant Three Gorges hydroelectric dam.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said new cases would appear as China stepped up monitoring. But 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 round the world have stepped up screening of people 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 of the virus emerged in Hong Kong on Wednesday, media reported. The patient arrived via high-speed railway from the mainland and had been quarantined.
“The whole world is watching,” the city’s commerce secretary, Edward Yau, told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
North Korea banned foreign tourists from Wednesday due to the virus, several foreign tour operators said, losing one of its main sources of foreign currency.
Sport too was affected, with some qualifying boxing matches for the 2020 Olympics set for Wuhan canceled and women’s football qualifiers shifted to Nanjing.
China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the top legal authority in the communist-ruled country, posted on Tuesday that anyone failing to report virus cases “will be forever nailed to the pillar of historical shame”.
And state broadcaster CCTV has shown footage of doctors in quarantine gear in Wuhan.
But despite such openness, some experts were skeptical.
“We have reason to doubt whether surv (surveillance) is adequate as cases mount,” tweeted Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University Law School in Washington.
Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease specialist at Imperial College London, estimated the number of cases in Wuhan at about 4,000 and predicted the outbreak would spread fast.
“Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than other viruses because we have no immunity to them,” he said.
Reporting by Cate Cadell, Lusha Zhang and Jiang Xihao in Beijing, David Stanway in Shanghai, Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Josh Smith in Seoul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Alexandra Alper in Davos, Shreyashi Sanyal in Bangalore, Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence.
[Editor’s note: This article has been updated from the original version to amend the number of confirmed deaths from nine to 17 people.]