Asia Pacific

China scrambles to contain 'strengthening' virus as death toll tops 50

AP, Kyodo, Bloomberg, Reuters

The coronavirus transmission ability is getting stronger and infections could continue to rise, China’s National Health Commission said Sunday, with more than 2,000 people globally infected and at least 56 in China dead.

National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei, speaking at a news briefing, said authorities’ knowledge of the new virus was limited and they are unclear on the risks posed by mutations of the virus.

Ma said the incubation period for the coronavirus can range from one to 14 days, and that the virus is infectious during incubation, which was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.

Containment efforts, which have thus far included transportation and travel curbs and the cancellation of big events, will be intensified, Ma told a crowded news briefing on the second day of the Lunar New Year holiday.

The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Australia, France and Canada.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government was working with Chinese authorities to arrange a charter flight for any Japanese nationals who wish to return from Wuhan.

South Korea’s Consulate in Wuhan said it was conducting an online poll of its citizens there to gauge demand for a chartered flight out.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan announced it will evacuate its personnel and some private citizens aboard a charter flight. A notice from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said there would be limited capacity to transport U.S. citizens on the Tuesday flight from Wuhan that will proceed directly to San Francisco. It said that in the event there are not enough seats, priority will be given to individuals “at greater risk from coronavirus.”

In a move that could mean fewer Chinese tourists in Japan, state-run media reported Saturday that all group travel from China to other countries will be banned from Monday, with travel agents being told to stop organizing trips abroad.

Millions of people traveling during the holiday have fueled the spread of the outbreak nationwide and overseas after it began in the city of Wuhan in central China. The vast majority of the infections and all the deaths have been in mainland China, but fresh cases are popping up.

With throngs of Chinese tourists arriving in Japan for the Lunar New Year holidays, Japanese authorities have bolstered screenings at airports, airlines have been urged to distribute health declarations while businesses have issued warnings to their employees.

According to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, more than 7 million overseas trips will be made during the seven-day holiday period through Jan. 30, compared with 6.3 million last year. Chinese online travel agency Trip.com said Japan is their top foreign destination, followed by Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.

On Sunday, Japan’s health ministry said a fourth case of the virus has been confirmed in the country.

The patient is a man in his 40s who arrived in Japan on Wednesday as a tourist from Wuhan, the ministry said, adding he is in a stable condition.

The man is said to have had no symptoms at the time of arrival, but developed a fever on Thursday and went to see a doctor the following day in Aichi Prefecture.

The man was hospitalized in the prefecture and later tested positive for the virus, it said, adding he is said to have worn a mask while traveling.

On Sunday, South Korea confirmed its third case, according to Yonhap news agency. Citing the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Yonhap said a 54-year-old South Korean resident of Wuhan who arrived back home on Monday had tested positive for the virus.

Singapore also reported its fourth case the same day, a 36-year-old man from Wuhan.

Meanwhile, the French Consulate also was considering an evacuation of its nationals from the city. It said it’s working on arranging a bus service to help French citizens leave Wuhan.

French automaker PSA Group said it will evacuate its employees from Wuhan, quarantine them and then bring them to France. The Foreign Ministry said it was working on “eventual options” to evacuate French citizens from Wuhan “who want to leave.” It didn’t elaborate.

An Ethiopian student in Wuhan said that it’s becoming difficult to buy food and the situation was worsening.

“There are more than 100 Ethiopian students who are studying in Wuhan, and 300 in Hubei province,” said the student, who spoke on condition of anonymity for his safety. “We fear that we will be sick soon. Our school didn’t arrange anything … (other than) giving us masks.” He did not say which school.

Also Sunday, two of Hong Kong’s biggest attractions, Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park, announced they were closing for the time being.

“As a precautionary measure in line with prevention efforts taking place across Hong Kong, we are temporarily closing Hong Kong Disneyland park out of consideration for the health and safety of our guests and cast members,” the park said in a statement. It said a reopening date would be announced based on the advisement of local authorities.

In the heart of the outbreak where 11 million residents are already on lockdown, Wuhan banned most vehicle use, including private cars, in downtown areas starting Sunday. The city will assign 6,000 taxis to neighborhoods to help people get around if they need to.

China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan on Wednesday, as well as public transportation within the city, and has steadily expanded a lockdown to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million — greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.

A growing number of cities and provinces were enacting their own travel restrictions to contain the virus. The city of Shantou, almost 1,000 km (620 miles) southeast of Wuhan, was banning bus, taxi, ferry and car-hailing services from Monday. Only those authorized would be allowed to enter the city to maintain supplies or provide services.

Shantou has reported two cases, with another 96 in the surrounding province of Guangdong.

Elsewhere, long-distance, inter-provincial bus services had been suspended, including those to and from Beijing.

The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse but could reflect better monitoring and reporting of the virus. Those killed by the virus have mostly been middle-aged or elderly people, sometimes suffering from other conditions that weaken their ability to fight back.

It is not clear how lethal the new coronavirus is or even whether it is as dangerous as the ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S. alone.

The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.

China is using AbbVie Inc.’s HIV drugs as an ad-hoc treatment for pneumonia caused by the virus while the global search for a cure continues.

The Beijing branch of the National Health Commission said that a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir, sold under the brand name Kaletra by AbbVie, is part of its latest treatment plan for patients infected by the virus.

The NHC said that while there is not yet any effective anti-viral drug, it recommends patients are given two lopinavir and ritonavir tablets twice a day and a dose of alpha-interpheron through nebulization twice daily.

Medical journal Lancet said on Friday that a clinical trial is underway using ritonavir and lopinavir to treat cases of the new coronavirus. Meanwhile, China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention will start developing a vaccine, according to the Global Times.

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