Restrictions on travel and public gatherings have been implemented in Wuhan, the city in central China where the virus was first detected, as well as in several nearby municipalities. Hong Kong and Beijing are canceling planned holiday activities, according to local officials and state media.
Pressure to contain the virus is growing as the number of cases expand. Adding to the urgency to curtail the spread is the start of Lunar New Year on Friday, when millions of Chinese travel across the country and abroad. Chinese stores were stripped of masks and hand sanitizers as fearful customers sought protection.
“The next few weeks will be very important not just for containing the outbreak but also to help us understand how this virus behaves," Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University, told Bloomberg Television. “It’s really important for countries around the world to make sure they’re prepared for this."
Concerns about the virus extend beyond health to its impact on the economy, with warnings that China’s fragile stabilization could be at risk. Mounting fears about the outbreak have roiled financial markets, and the Shanghai Composite Index had the worst end to a Lunar Year in its three-decade history.
Public health experts gathered by the United Nations agency to review the situation were split over whether they should recommend declaring a public health crisis of international concern and instead opted to continue monitoring the outbreak. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said he would reconvene the committee within 10 days, or at a moment’s notice should the situation take a turn for the worse.
“Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency," Tedros said at a briefing in Geneva Thursday. “It may yet become one."
The number of confirmed cases in mainland China rose to 830 as of Jan. 23, including 177 cases in severe condition and the 25 deaths, the National Health Commission said in a statement. One of the deaths was from the northern province of Hebei, while the rest were in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. The 80-year-old man had recently traveled to Wuhan.
Patients with the infection have been found in countries across Asia, with Singapore and Vietnam announcing cases while Japan and South Korea reported second patients. While most cases have remained mild, about one-fourth of those infected have developed severe disease, officials said.
Most of those who have died had other health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, that weakened their immune systems. Symptoms include fever, cough or chest tightness, and difficulty breathing.
While the virus is moving from human to human, a situation that worries public health officials, it appears that close exposure is critical. Most cases have moved from patients to their close family members or to health-care workers who were caring for them.
The WHO said in a statement after its briefing that “amplification" -- presumably a super spreader event in which an infected person passes on the disease to many others -- occurred at one health facility. It also said a single patient on average can ignite as many as 2.5 additional infections. Furthermore, it has detected transmission from patient to patient across a chain of as many as four people in Wuhan.
The virus is believed to have emerged last month in a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan, spreading from infected animals to humans.
It’s critical for public health officials to monitor the situation closely, said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a London-based medical research philanthropy. It’s still not clear how the virus moves from person-to-person, when patients are infectious or how best to treat them, he said.
“This outbreak and the speed with which this new virus has spread in China and traveled across borders, is a reminder of how vulnerable we are globally to outbreaks of infectious diseases known and unknown," Farrar said in a statement. “Travel restrictions may be important in buying time, to signal the seriousness of the situation and may help reduce the impact, but are unlikely to stop this epidemic."
Seven cities including Wuhan in Hubei province have restricted the use of public transportation to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to announcements from those cities. The other cities include Huanggang, Xianning, Qianjing, Xiantao, Ezhou and Chibi.
An emergency declaration by the WHO would have allowed the agency to begin coordinating government responses. It also could have recommended travel and trade restrictions to stop the spread of the infection.
The WHO has come under fire in the past for raising the alert too soon as well as too late. The last respiratory illness to trigger a public health emergency was the flu pandemic of 2009, which caused widespread alarm but ended up being relatively mild.
In 2014, by contrast, the WHO was criticized for not sounding the alarm early enough as Ebola raged through West Africa. Another outbreak of that illness last July in the Democratic Republic of Congo was also deemed to be a public health emergency, almost a year after the contagion first erupted.
Under the shadow of its mishandling of the SARS pandemic 17 years ago, China wants to show the world it’s dealing with the crisis transparently and effectively, while still struggling to understand a pathogen that is difficult to detect.
Both the Wuhan virus, known as 2019-nCoV, and SARS belong to the family of coronaviruses, so called because of their crown-like shape.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.