GENEVA/BEIJING – The World Health Organization called the deadly new coronavirus from Wuhan “an emergency in China” on Thursday but stopped short of declaring the epidemic to be of international concern.
The number of confirmed cases had risen to 830 with 25 deaths, the National Health Commission said Friday morning. The first death outside of Hubei province was also confirmed. The health commission in Hebei, a northern province bordering Beijing, said an 80-year-old man died after returning from a two-month stay in Wuhan to see relatives.
Cases have been found in at least seven other countries, including Japan.
The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed about 800 people, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), which is thought to have originated from camels.
Three research teams are to start work on developing potential vaccines, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations said. The plan is to have at least one potential vaccine in clinical trials by June.
Preliminary research suggests the virus was passed to humans from snakes, but Chinese government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan has also identified badgers and rats as possible sources.
Health officials fear the transmission rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel around the country and abroad during weeklong holidays for the Lunar New Year.
Nonetheless, it was a “bit too early” to consider the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” WHO Emergency Committee panel chair Didier Houssin said after the body met in Geneva. Such a designation would have required countries to step up the international response.
“Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“It has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” he said.
Scrambling to contain the outbreak, the local government in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Hubei province, suspended most transport on Thursday, including outgoing flights, and people were told not to leave. Hours later, neighboring Huanggang, a city of about 7 million people, announced similar measures.
China on Friday broadened its unprecedented, open-ended lockdowns to encompass around 25 million people in and around Wuhan, though the measures’ potential for success is uncertain. At least eight cities have been shut down — Wuhan, Ezhou, Huanggang, Chibi, Qianjiang, Zhijiang, Jingmen and Xiantao — all in Hubei.
Wuhan said Friday it was building a designated hospital with space for 1,000 beds in the style of a facility that Beijing constructed during the SARS epidemic. The hospital will be erected on a 25,000 square-meter lot and is slated for completion Feb. 3 — just 10 days away.
In Beijing, major public events were canceled indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of Lunar New Year celebrations. The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.
WHO said it was not yet recommending any broader restrictions on travel or trade.
The new disease has created alarm because there are a number of unknowns surrounding it. It is too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people.
The virus can spread through respiratory transmission. Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and coughing.
Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said data from China suggested almost three-quarters of the cases were in people over age 40, with some 40 percent having underlying health conditions.
“At the moment, we haven’t seen many mild cases,” he said, cautioning that it was difficult at the start of an epidemic to estimate the severity or true fatality rate.
There had been human-to-human transmission of the virus in China, limited to family groups and health workers, Tedros said.
The WHO committee of 16 independent experts had been divided in its conclusion not to declare a global emergency, said Tedros, adding that the decision “should not be taken as a sign that the WHO does not think the situation is serious.”
Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the outbreak is at a critical phase and “there cannot be any complacency as to the need for global action.”
In Wuhan, the Hankou railway station was nearly deserted on Thursday, state broadcasts showed. State media reported highway toll booths around Wuhan were closing, effectively cutting off road exits, and all ride-hailing services would be canceled from Friday. Guards were patrolling highways, one resident said.
As the city slipped into isolation, residents thronged hospitals for medical checks and rushed to buy supplies, clearing out supermarket shelves and lining up at gas stations.
Other cities were also taking steps to contain the virus.
The U.S. State Department warned travelers to exercise increased caution in China as airports worldwide stepped up the screening of passengers arriving from the country.
Cases have already been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.
Five people were being tested in Scotland for the virus as a precaution, the BBC reported on Thursday. All had respiratory symptoms and had recently been in Wuhan, it said.
Hong Kong, which has two confirmed cases, is turning two holiday camps into quarantine stations as a precaution.
Taiwan has banned anyone from Wuhan from going to the island.
Chinese people had their own ways of protecting themselves.
“I go straight to where I need to go, and then I go home,” said 79-year-old Li Meihua, from behind a mask, on the streets of Shanghai.