BEIJING/HONG, KONG – Governments, global companies and international health organizations rushed to contain the spread of a SARS-like coronavirus that has claimed more than 100 lives in China, with the number of cases soaring.
As containment efforts intensify, the likelihood of the virus disrupting global businesses and the world’s second-largest economy appears to be growing. China has extended the Lunar New Year holiday, while companies are shutting stores and evacuating workers. More than 50 million people remain effectively locked down by travel restrictions in Wuhan and Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The spread of the coronavirus has reignited concerns over global growth, with stocks continuing a sell-off in Asia on Tuesday. China’s markets remained closed for the holiday but the country’s securities regulator told investors to evaluate the impact of the virus “rationally.”
The moves to contain the disease come as China unveiled the latest toll, with fatalities reaching 106, while confirmed cases soared 65 percent to 4,515. Almost all of the deaths have occurred in Hubei province.
While infections have been reported throughout Asia — including in Japan — as well as in the U.S., France and Canada, the number of incidents has been far more limited, with each country accounting for fewer than 10 cases. Germany confirmed its first case.
As global anxiety over the outbreak grows, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited Beijing to meet with government officials. In a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he commended China on the public health measures it has taken.
“We can see the speed and scale with which you are really hitting the virus hard,” Tedros said. “This is something we appreciate and also respect you for what you are doing.”
Tedros also said he does not advocate the evacuation of foreign nationals currently in China and urged people to stay calm. according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Last week, WHO declined to label the coronavirus an international emergency, a designation that would have allowed the U.N. agency to begin coordinating government responses.
Chinese officials have conceded the virus isn’t yet under control, and public anger has grown over its response. While it’s too early to assess the full impact of the virus on China, if the country fails to get a grip on the situation, it could derail a fragile stabilization in the world economy after Beijing and Washington reached agreement on the phase one trade deal.
With the restrictions on travel and an extended holiday break, it’s already clear the virus is hurting consumption and tourism. Industrial production will also be impacted just as factories would normally be getting back into full swing following the Lunar New Year holidays.
Global corporations are also clamping down, restricting travel to China and urging employees in the region — or those who have recently returned from China — to work from home. Fast Retailing Co. has closed about 100 Uniqlo stores it operates in China, mostly in Hubei, according to a company spokeswoman.
Nissan Motor Co. planned to join automakers evacuating workers from the hardest hit areas, while Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. suspended nine voyages leaving China Jan. 25 to Feb. 4 and promised refunds to customers.
In Hong Kong, the government has asked civil servants to work from home, and announced the temporary closing of all sports and cultural facilities starting Wednesday, including museums, swimming pools, public libraries and soccer pitches.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and other nations were negotiating with China to arrange chartered flights to evacuate diplomats, personnel and citizens from the hardest-hit areas of country.
Japan planned to send a chartered plane Tuesday evening to repatriate the first 200 of some 650 nationals who want to return, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said in Tokyo.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the U.S. was working with Chinese authorities to bring back American consulate personnel and other citizens from Wuhan. Seating will be offered to U.S. citizens on a flight leaving Wednesday morning to Ontario, California. Ortagus said the travelers would be “screened and monitored to protect their health as well as the health and safety of their fellow Americans here at home.”
Other countries considering similar arrangements include Australia, India, South Korea, Thailand and the U.K. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported there are about 100 Australian children in Wuhan.
Evacuations have been complicated by the blanket travel restrictions imposed on a large swathe of central China to prevent the disease from spreading.
The U.S. State Department raised its travel alert to the second-highest of four levels, saying citizens should reconsider travel to China while avoiding any travel to the area near Wuhan.
The U.S. may also expand travel screening at its borders and is closely monitoring 110 people to stop the virus, testing them for presence of the pathogen. As of Monday morning, there have been no new U.S. cases after the first five patients were identified in the past week.
“At this time in the U.S., this virus is not spreading in the community,” said Nancy Messonnier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Anxiety is growing amid evidence that the disease has an incubation period of as long as two weeks before those infected start to show symptoms. That raises the possibility that people could travel and eventually infect others before realizing they have the illness. But Messonnier said that so far there has been no clear evidence that the virus can spread during the incubation period before patients have symptoms.
The new coronavirus appears to be less contagious than highly infectious viruses such as measles, she said.
Information from Reuters added