Beijing locks down some 20 million people in several cities to contain the disease, preventing planes and trains from leaving in an unprecedented move that health experts say is "new to science."

Passengers arriving from Guangzhou, China, wear masks at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay, Philippines, January 23, 2020.
Passengers arriving from Guangzhou, China, wear masks at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay, Philippines, January 23, 2020. (Reuters)

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday that the new coronavirus that has emerged in China and spread to several other countries does not yet constitute an international emergency but it was tracking its evolution "every minute". 

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the announcement after its Emergency Committee of 16 independent experts reviewed the latest evidence and made its recommendations, which he accepted. 

"Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China," Tedros told a news conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva. "But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one."

WHO's evaluation came as China locked down some 20 million people at the epicentre of a deadly virus outbreak on Thursday, banning planes and trains from leaving in an unprecedented move aimed at containing the disease which has already spread to other countries.

Streets and shopping centres in Wuhan were eerily quiet after authorities told residents not to leave the major city of 11 million people, where most of the cases have been identified.

Trains and planes out of Wuhan were indefinitely suspended and tollways on roads out the city were closed, leading to fear and panic for those who were trapped.

"We are feeling as though it is the end of the world," said one Wuhan resident on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform, voicing concerns about shortages of food and disinfectant.

Another described being on the "verge of tears" when the de facto quarantine was announced, with the misery compounded by the news coming on the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Hours later, authorities in neighbouring Huanggang announced public transport and train services would be suspended at midnight, while people were told to not leave the city of 7.5 million.

All of Huanggang's cinemas, internet cafes, and the central market will close.

A third city, Ezhou, with a 1.1 million population, announced the train station had been closed earlier in the day.

And highways were closed in neighbouring Xiantao, while public transport will be suspended from midnight in nearby Chibi. The two cities have a combined population of around two million people.

As efforts to contain the virus spread, Beijing cancelled massive gatherings that usually attract throngs at temples during the New Year holiday, while the historic Forbidden City will close from Saturday.

The respiratory coronavirus has claimed 17 lives since emerging from a seafood and animal market in the central city of Wuhan, infected hundreds of other people and been detected as far away as the United States.

Map shows which counties have been affected by China's nCoV deadly virus outbreak.
Map shows which counties have been affected by China's nCoV deadly virus outbreak. (TRTWorld)

Empty streets

Wuhan's train station and the airport, which should have been packed with people travelling for holiday family reunions, were almost empty except for workers on Thursday afternoon.

The few people wandering in the streets of the city were wearing masks as mandated by police.

More than 570 people have been infected with the virus across China –– with most cases found in Wuhan, where a market that illegally sold wild animals has been identified as the epicentre.

The lockdown of entire cities to contain a virus outbreak stands in contrast to its handling of the deadly SARS crisis two decades ago, when it was criticised for being secretive and indecisive.

Like SARS (short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), China's new disease is contagious between humans and is part of the same family of coronaviruses.

But unlike the 2003 SARS epidemic, when China drew international condemnation for covering up cases, Beijing is taking a starkly different approach to contain the new disease, experts say.

"Chinese authorities express the willingness to collaborate more transparently and more quickly than for (the) SARS outbreak," said Antoine Flahault, deputy director of the Swiss School of Public Health.

The consequences of the information blackout during the SARS outbreak were keenly felt in China. Nearly 650 people died across the mainland and Hong Kong from the disease.

A child wears a mask at the Hong Kong West Kowloon High Speed Train Station in Hong Kong on January 23, 2020.
A child wears a mask at the Hong Kong West Kowloon High Speed Train Station in Hong Kong on January 23, 2020. (Reuters)

Here's what we know so far about the 2019-nCoV:

- The pathogen is entirely new - a never-before-seen strain of coronavirus.

- Most patients experience flu-like symptoms, including fever, a cough, shortness of breath, a sore throat or runny nose.

- It may have originated in bats, according to genetic analysis, but researchers say there could have been an "intermediate host" in the transmission to humans that one study suggested could have been snakes.

- It's being passed between humans. Nathalie MacDermott of King's College London said it seems likely the virus is spreading through droplets in the air from sneezing or coughing.

- It is milder than SARS. Which makes it more worrying as it allows infected people to travel far before they become symptomatic.

18 million under lockdown

Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Wednesday the virus likely came from "wild animals at a seafood market" in Wuhan.

The market offered a range of exotic wildlife for sale, including live foxes, crocodiles, wolf pups, giant salamanders, snakes, rats, peacocks, porcupines, and camel meat.

SARS was linked to Chinese consumption of civet meat.

Studies published this week suggest that the new 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.

Police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded Wuhan city's train station, where metal barriers blocked the entrances at 10 am local time. Only travellers holding tickets for the last trains were allowed to enter, with those booked for later trains being turned away. 

“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science," said Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization's representative in China. 

“It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work."

Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces in Wuhan were eerily quiet. 

Social media users posted that cinemas were cancelling showings and complained that food vendors were exploiting the situation with huge price increases on fresh produce.

Virtually everyone at the scene was wearing masks, news website The Paper's live broadcast showed.

Local authorities have demanded all residents wear masks in public places and urged government staff to wear them at work and for shopkeepers to post signs for their visitors, Xinhua news agency quoted a government notice as saying.

Train stations, the airport, subways, ferries, and long-distance shuttle buses were stopped in the city, an industrial and transportation hub in central China's Hubei province. 

Hours later, authorities in neighbouring Huanggang announced that public transport and train services would be suspended at midnight, while people were told to not leave the city of 7.5 million.

All of Huanggang's cinemas, internet cafes, and the central market will close.

A third city, 1.1 million-population Ezhou, announced the train station had been temporarily closed earlier in the day.

China takes more open approach

The Chinese government has published regular updates of the new virus since announcing its appearance at the end of December, the exact opposite of its response in 2003.

The country saw its first case of SARS in November 2002, but Beijing waited until February to officially acknowledge the disease, which it downplayed then as "effectively controlled".

Chinese authorities also repeatedly failed to coordinate with the WHO, which urged "full and open" reporting of cases.

In addition to Guangdong province, WHO experts were also blocked from accessing Beijing military hospitals with suspected SARS patients.

By early June 2003, more than 300 people in China had died from the disease, while another 5,329 remained infected.

In contrast, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyes, on Wednesday hailed the "very, very strong measures" taken by China this time around.

He praised its openness about the current outbreak as "commendable".

Tedros spoke after the global body held a meeting on Wednesday to decide whether to classify the outbreak as a global health emergency. International experts were split and a new meeting will be held on Thursday.

16 under observation in US 

At least 16 people had close contact with a Washington state man diagnosed as the first US case of the coronavirus and are being monitored, local officials said.

The patient, a 30-year-old man, is doing well and may be released from Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington in the near future, the hospital's chief medical officer Jay Cook told a press conference.

None of the people who were in close contact with the patient have displayed symptoms of the flu-like illness, said John Wiesman, secretary of health for Washington State.

"The risk to the general public remains low," said Chris Spitters, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

The man fell ill over the weekend after travelling to Wuhan, China, his hometown, in November and December and was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Monday.

Response to coronavirus

Countries in Asia and elsewhere have begun body temperature checks at airports, railway stations and along highways in hopes of catching people carrying the new coronavirus that is believed to have spread from Wuhan in central China. 

The recent confirmation that the disease can spread between humans has heightened fears as millions of Chinese travel during the annual Lunar New Year holiday.

Many airlines, including Korean Air Lines, Singapore Airlines' budget carrier Scoot, Taiwan's China Airlines Ltd and Japan's ANA, announced they were cancelling flights in and out of Wuhan after authorities announced a lockdown.

Meanwhile, an Indian nurse working at a hospital in southwestern Saudi Arabia has been infected by the coronavirus, India's minister of state for external affairs said on Thursday.

"About 100 Indian nurses, mostly from Kerala, working at al Hayat hospital have been tested and none except one nurse was found infected by coronavirus. The affected nurse is being treated at Aseer National Hospital and is recovering well," V Muraleedharan tweeted.

The kingdom said on Wednesday it would start screening passengers arriving from China and take other preventive measures following the outbreak in the central Chinese city.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies