Chinese authorities have said that efforts to control the outbreak of a deadly Sars-like virus have reached a critical point as more than 100m Chinese prepare to board trains and aeroplanes to return home for the Lunar New Year.
The coronavirus has killed nine people and infected at least 440 in 13 provinces, Beijing said on Wednesday, nearly doubling the number of affected people from only a day earlier.
The disease is believed to have originated in a seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December but has since spread across the globe to Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and North America. US authorities confirmed the first case on American soil on Tuesday.
Human-to-human transmission of the virus was confirmed this week.
The outbreak was now at its most critical stage of prevention and control, China’s National Health Commission said on Wednesday morning in Beijing, as the nation of more than 1.4bn people prepared to celebrate the lunar new year, often called the Spring Festival, which kicks off on Friday. The holiday over the next two weeks entails the largest mass movement of people in the world.
“During the spring festival travel season, there is greater movement of people, which increases the risk of spread and difficulty of prevention and control and we must not let down our guard and be highly vigilant.” said Li Bin, vice-minister of China’s Health Commission.
The outbreak has brought to mind China’s Sars crisis in 2003, which was initially covered up by authorities. The outbreak killed 800 people as it spread around the region. Several officials lost their jobs in the wake of the Sars scandal.
This time around, officials in Beijing have signalled a high degree of urgency in controlling the outbreak of the coronavirus, even posting veiled threats against anyone seeking to conceal important information about the virus.
Several controls have already been put in place around the world to curb the spread of the virus.
In Wuhan, people with fevers and flu-like symptoms are being stopped from travelling at airports and train stations. US authorities are screening travellers at New York’s JFK Airport, San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.
The Taiwanese government said on Wednesday that it would no longer admit tour groups from Wuhan and might broaden this ban to tour groups from other parts of China, depending on the spread of the disease.
The decision came after Taiwan reported its first confirmed case on Tuesday night, a Taiwanese woman who worked in Wuhan and returned home for a Lunar New Year holiday.
Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, on Wednesday urged the World Health Organisation (WHO) to stop ignoring her country, as the spread of the disease highlighted the need for global co-ordination in disease prevention. The WHO has refused to allow Taiwan to participate in the information-sharing process for the disease.
“The 23m Taiwanese people, just like other corners of the globe, can become the frontline in the prevention of infectious diseases anytime. I again appeal to the WHO not to exclude Taiwan for political reasons,” Ms Tsai said.
She also urged China to share fully accurate and timely information about the disease with Taiwan.
Markets recovered slightly on Wednesday after falling a day earlier on concern over the outbreak. China’s CSI 300 index was up 0.6 per cent while Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng climbed 1.1 per cent.