Beijing, Jan 23 (Reuters) – China put on lockdown on Thursday two cities at the epicenter of a new coronavirus outbreak that has killed 17 people and infected nearly 600, as health authorities around the world scramble to prevent a global pandemic.
Health officials fear the transmission rate will accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during week-long holidays for the Lunar New Year, which begins on Saturday.
The previously unknown virus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Most transport in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was suspended on Thursday morning and people were told not to leave. Hours later, neighboring Huanggang, a city of some 7 million people, announced a similar lockdown.
“The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history, so it is certainly not a recommendation the WHO has made,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in Beijing, told Reuters
There is no vaccine for the virus, which can spread through respiratory transmission. Symptoms include fever, difficulty in breathing and cough, similar to many other respiratory illnesses.
Preliminary research suggested the virus was passed on to humans from snakes, but government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan has also identified badgers and rats as possible sources.
The WHO has said it will decide on Thursday whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, which would step up the international response.
If it does so, it will be the sixth international public health emergency to be declared in the last decade. A WHO news conference is expected some time after 1800 GMT.
Chinese authorities gave no new details on the numbers of virus infections but it has been reported in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and several other countries including the United States, stoking fears it is already spreading worldwide.
Wuhan’s city government said it would shut down all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights from 10 a.m. (0200 GMT). Domestic media said some airlines were operating after the deadline, however.
State media broadcast images of one of Wuhan’s transport hubs, the Hankou rail station, nearly deserted, with gates blocked or barred. The government urged citizens not to leave the city.
State media reported highway toll booths around Wuhan were closing down, which would effectively cut off road exits. Guards were patrolling major highways, one resident told Reuters.
As the city slipped into isolation, residents thronged into hospitals for checks and scrambled for supplies, clearing out supermarket shelves and queuing for petrol.
Authorities in Huanggang ordered indoor entertainment venues including cinemas and internet cafes to close and were asking citizens not to leave other than under special circumstances.
Authorities had confirmed 571 cases and 17 deaths by the end of Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission said. Earlier, it said another 393 suspected cases had been reported.
Of eight known cases worldwide, Thailand has confirmed four, while Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States have reported one each.