BEIJING (Reuters) – China shut part of the Great Wall and suspended public transport in 10 cities, stranding millions of people at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday on Friday as authorities rush to contain a virus that has killed 26 people and infected more than 800.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the new coronavirus an “emergency in China” but stopped short of declaring it of international concern.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million at the center of the outbreak, is in virtual lockdown. Nearly all flights at Wuhan’s airport have been canceled and checkpoints block the main roads leading out of town.
As the city slides into isolation, pharmacies have begun to run out of supplies and hospitals have been flooded with nervous residents. The city is rushing to build a 1,000-bed hospital by Monday, state media said.
Despite the lockdown, the virus is already spreading further afield.
The vast majority of the cases and all of the deaths have been in China, but it has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal and the United States.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday it had 63 patients under investigation, with two confirmed cases, both in people who had traveled to Wuhan.
Following a congressional briefing by health officials, Republican Senator John Barrasso, a former physician, said people in the United States with the virus may have been infected as long as 14 days earlier in China.
“We want to try to stop and prevent people from coming to the United States if they have it,” Barrasso told reporters, without providing any details of how that might be accomplished.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China.
The newly-identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and coughing. Most of the fatalities have been in elderly patients, many with pre-existing conditions, the WHO said.
As of Thursday, China’s National Health Commission said there were 830 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.
Most cases have been in Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated in a market that traded illegally in wildlife.
As China scrambles to contain the outbreak, it has suspended transport in 10 cities in the central province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, the Hubei Daily reported.
The country will take further, more targeted measures, state television reported, citing a State Council meeting on Friday. It did not give further details.
“Local authorities should take more responsibility and have a stronger sense of urgency,” state broadcaster CCTV said.
Week-long celebrations to welcome the Year of the Rat began on Friday, raising fears the infection rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of people travel to see family at home and abroad.
In Wuhan, a handful of people got off a high-speed train that pulled into the town’s station on Friday but nobody boarded.
“What choice do I have? It’s Chinese New Year. We have to see our family,” said a man getting off the train who gave his family name Hu.
As part of the restrictions, some sections of the Great Wall near Beijing will be closed from Saturday, state media said.
Beijing’s Lama Temple, where people traditionally make offerings for the new year, has closed, as have some other temples and the Forbidden City, the capital’s most famous tourist attraction.
Shanghai Disneyland will close from Saturday. The theme park has a 100,000 daily capacity and sold out during last year’s new year holiday.
Film premieres have been postponed and McDonald’s suspended business in five cities in Hubei province.
“There’s so much news, so much data, every 10 minutes there’s an update, it’s frightening, especially for people like us in a severely hit area,” Lily Jin, 30, a resident of Wuhan, told Reuters by phone.
The WHO said on Thursday it was a “bit too early” to designate the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, which would require countries to step up their response.
That decision could well be reassessed in coming days as the situation evolves, said Anthony Fauci, the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s top infectious disease official, adding that it was “open to question” whether shutting down travel would have a major effect.
Some experts believe the virus is not as dangerous as the one that caused the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which also began in China and killed nearly 800 people, or the one that caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has killed more than 700 people since 2012.
There is no vaccine or specific treatment for the new virus.
“There is some work being done and there are some trials now for MERS (vaccines). And we may look at some point whether those treatments and vaccines would have some effect on this novel coronavirus,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said on Friday.
Gilead Sciences Inc said it was assessing whether its experimental vaccine that failed against Ebola could be an effective treatment for the new virus. Meanwhile, three research teams were starting work on vaccines, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations said.
The virus is expected to dent China’s growth after months of economic worries over trade tensions with the United States.
Shares in luxury goods firms have suffered from the anticipated drop in demand from China, and on Friday French spirits group Remy Cointreau said it was “clearly concerned” about the potential impact.
Reporting by Roxanne Liu, David Stanway, Martin Pollard, Tony Munroe, Muyu Xu, Engen Tham, Cate Cadell, Judy Hua and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Writing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Alison Williams and Bill Berkrot