China halts flights and trains out of Wuhan as WHO extends talks

Asia World

BEIJING: The Chinese city at the heart of a deadly virus outbreak is under effective quarantine, with outward flights and trains suspended, subways halted and large public events cancelled as doctors in full-body protective suits treat patients.

The coronavirus has spread across China and beyond, with 17 people killed and more than 500 infected in an outbreak that started in Wuhan – a central city of 11 million people described by state media as “the main battlefield” against the disease.

Most cases are in Wuhan, a major transport hub with a seafood market that has been identified as the epicentre of the epidemic. A few cases involving people who visited Wuhan have been found elsewhere in the United States and some Asian countries.

MORE: Our coverage of the Wuhan virus and its developments

Authorities announced that flights and trains out of the city will be temporarily suspended from 0200 GMT (10am, Singapore time) on Thursday, while the city’s public buses, subway and long-distance coaches are also halted until further notice, it said.

“Without a special reason, city residents should not leave Wuhan,”, the central city’s special command centre to combat the virus said, according to state media.

The move is meant to “effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb the outbreak and guarantee the people’s health and safety,” the notice said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The decision came as hundreds of millions of people are travelling across China for the Chinese New Year holiday, which starts on Friday.

The city’s tourism and culture department cancelled all group tours until Feb 8, Xinhua said.

Tourist attractions and star-rated hotels must also suspend all large-scale activities until that date, it added.

The provincial library and two major local theatres cancelled exhibitions and performances, while four museums have suspended operations until further notice, it said.

READ: Masks, disinfectants in low supply as China virus spreads

City officials had earlier urged people to stay away from Wuhan and for residents to avoid leaving.

The annual prayer-giving at the city’s Guiyuan Temple, a major Lunar New Year event that attracted 700,000 people last year, was scrapped.

Plans to send opera troupes around rural areas during the holiday have also been pulled.

SEALED OFF

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meanwhile said he was postponing a decision on whether or not to declare a global health emergency – a rare instrument used only for the worst outbreaks – saying he needed “more information”.

“I have decided to ask the emergency committee to meet again tomorrow to continue their discussion,” he said, referring to a group of international experts who met for several hours at the WHO in Geneva on Wednesday.

Asked about the transport shutdown, he added: “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.”

Beijing screening
Health officials in hazmat suits check body temperatures of passengers arriving from the city of Wuhan, at the airport in Beijing, China. (AP Photo Emily Wang)

The hashtag “Wuhan is sealed off” was trending on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, with more than 30 million views.

“Once there’s a suggestion of a new development, the first thought is to maintain stability” and stop rumours, “hoping that by muffling it, it will go away,” one user said on Weibo.

Comments deemed politically sensitive are regularly censored on the social media platform.

Others commended the government’s response, with one person saying “we should spare no effort in supporting all of the country’s policy decisions”.

Fever scanners were checking passengers at the city’s airport and train station this week.

Footage on state broadcaster CCTV showed Wuhan medical staff in full-body protective suits, gloves and plastic face visors as they registered patients.

The patients, wearing normal clothes with face masks, had their temperatures checked as queues snaked out of the consultation room into the corridor.

Hundreds of people have been infected with the virus in China and 17 have died since the first case was detected in Wuhan on Dec 31.

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.

The illness is mainly transmitted via the respiratory tract and there “is the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease”, health commission vice minister Li Bin told a news conference in Beijing.

More than 500 cases have now been reported, with the majority in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province.

Major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing have also reported cases, as well as provinces in northeastern, central, and southern China.

The virus has also been detected in Japan, Macau, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States.

The Chinese government has classified the outbreak in the same category as the SARS epidemic, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the illness and the potential to implement quarantine measures.

READ: Wuhan virus: SIA, Scoot step up precautionary measures for all China flights

READ: China warns Wuhan virus could mutate and spread as death toll rises

But they still have not been able to confirm the exact source of the virus.

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.

VIRUS SOURCE

The WHO has confirmed that the virus can be passed between people, at least those in close contact.

However, animals are suspected to be the primary source of the outbreak.

A Wuhan market is believed to be the epicentre of the outbreak.

READ: On the menu at Wuhan virus market: Rats and live wolf pups

A price list circulating online in China for a business there lists a menagerie of animals or animal-based products including live foxes, crocodiles, wolf puppies and rats. It also offered civets, the animal linked to SARS.

“We already know that the disease originated from a market which conducted illegal transaction of wild animals,” said Gao Fu, director of the Chinese centre for disease control and prevention.

He said it was clear “this virus is adapting and mutating”.

Hong Kong and British scientists have estimated that between 1,300 and 1,700 people in Wuhan may have been infected.

MASK SELLING OUT

Health authorities are urging people to wash their hands regularly, avoid crowded places, get plenty of fresh air and wear a mask if they have a cough.

Anyone with a cough or fever was urged to go to hospital.

Wuhan Macau
Visitors wear face masks as they walk outside the Venetian casino hotel resort as a Lunar New Year light display is projected upon a facade of the building in Macau, after the former Portuguese colony reported its first case of the new SARS-like virus. (Anthony WALLACE/AFP)

In Wuhan, city authorities made it mandatory to wear a mask in public places on Wednesday, according to state-run People’s Daily.

READ: Cathay Pacific to allow cabin crew to wear masks on mainland China flights due to virus

In response to skyrocketing demand for masks – which were starting to sell out at pharmacies and on some popular websites – China’s industry and information technology ministry said it would “spare no effort in increasing supply”, state media reported.

“These days, I wear masks even in places that are not too crowded, although I wouldn’t have done so in the past,” said Wang Suping, 50, who works at a Beijing arts school.

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