Chinese health officials expanded travel restrictions beyond the epicenter of a SARS-like outbreak that’s killed at least 17 people as the virus appeared in the Asian financial hub of Singapore.
Channel News Asia reported the Singapore case yesterday. Travel was halted in Wuhan, China, where the virus was first detected, nearby municipalities restricted the use of transport and public sites, and schools in surrounding Hubei province delayed the opening of spring terms.
The dramatic steps came as pressure grows on China to contain the outbreak. With hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens traveling for the Lunar New Year this week, the virus’s spread could accelerate. Hong Kong and Beijing are canceling planned holiday activities, according to local officials and state media.
Under the shadow of its mishandling of SARS 17 years ago, China wants to show the world it’s dealing with the crisis transparently and effectively, while still struggling to understand a pathogen that is difficult to detect. When the SARS epidemic broke out, China was slow to share information, and initially denied the extent of the crisis.
The new coronavirus, which first appeared last month in Wuhan, has already spread from the mainland to locations from Hong Kong to Thailand to the U.S., coloring what is usually a period of celebration and reunion for Chinese people across the world with tension and anxiety.
China’s National Health Commission said there were 571 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Jan. 22. The number of infections may ultimately exceed 6,000, Chinese media Caixin reported, citing estimates from unidentified doctors working at key hospitals in Wuhan.
Asian stocks and oil prices slid and haven assets rose as concerns about the widening outbreak resurfaced. Chinese shares bore the brunt of losses, with the CSI 300 index dropping 3.1%, the most since May 2019.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization delayed a decision on whether to declare the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, a designation used for complex epidemics that can cross borders. The United Nations agency said it would meet again yesterday to determine a strategy.
“This is an evolving and complex situation,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, in a briefing with reporters in Geneva. “To proceed, we need more information.”
In Wuhan, a city of 11 million, chaos erupted as residents woke up to news of the travel restrictions. Long lines quickly formed at transport links as people tried to leave the city in the middle of the night before the ban took effect. Hundreds of flights were canceled. Nearby Huanggang, Ezhou, Xiantao and Chibi cities also imposed curbs.
Across China, social media postings questioned the blockade, asking why officials had waited until now to implement it, and whether it would be effective.
Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former Obama administration official, said that such involuntary quarantines “have a questionable track record and can often be counterproductive.”
“A quarantine around a city larger than New York will be challenging to enforce, and past precedents suggest it could lead to more hiding of cases and less voluntary compliance with public health measures,” he said.
Efforts to quarantine cities can also result in social disorder, according to University of Sydney associate professor Adam Kamradt-Scott. “There’s a delicate balance to be struck here between wanting to avoid the spread of the virus and at the same time maintaining social order and preventing unrest,” he said.
Disruptions are also taking place outside of Wuhan. Some schools in Beijing banned visitors – including parents – from spending extended periods of time on campus, while some public buildings in the city are testing the temperatures of anyone entering. Officials elsewhere are stepping up readiness.
“While there’s an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them,” U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons.
Global companies operating in China are altering their plans, limiting travel or forgoing long-held traditions around Lunar New Year to protect employees. Tencent Holdings Ltd., the Chinese social media giant, called off a longstanding annual tradition in which top executives hand out Lunar New Year red envelopes in person to employees.
At the briefing in Geneva, the WHO’s Tedros commended China’s response to the outbreak but said the agency nevertheless has a team in the Asian nation working with authorities.
China was criticized during the SARS crisis for initially providing limited information and denying the scope of the problem. With this new virus, health experts have generally praised the speed at which China identified and shared the genetic sequencing of the new coronavirus, allowing other countries to spot cases quickly.
Health officials have been taking important steps in tracing the virus through communities, finding earlier cases of people with pneumonia who may have escaped identification and following their close contacts to see whether they’ve become ill, said Maria van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist serving on the WHO emergency committee.
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said SARS was eventually stopped by good public health standards, including identification, isolation and quarantine.
“I think that’s a lesson we need to have learned from SARS, and apply those same principles right here with this new coronavirus that is causing this disease,” he told Bloomberg Television.
There hasn’t been any secondary transmission among patients who left China and all the human-to-human transmission has been among very close contacts or health-care workers, WHO officials said at the briefing. There has been little mutation within the virus, suggesting it’s stable, they said.
Symptoms include fever, cough or chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. At least nine of the victims had pre-existing conditions, and eight wereaged 80 or over. However, several didn’t display signs of fever, potentially complicating efforts to check for infected travelers as they arrive at airports and other travel hubs. Bloomberg