WUHAN, CHINA (AFP, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES) - China's National Health Commission said on Sunday (Jan 26) the transmission ability of the coronavirus behind an outbreak that has killed 56 people in China is getting stronger and that the number of infections could continue to rise.
More than 2,000 people have been infected with the new coronavirus that is believed to have originated last month in a seafood and wildlife market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that is now ground zero of the outbreak.
Speaking late on Sunday, the mayor of Wuhan said he expected a thousand more confirmed cases infected with the deadly Sars-like virus in the city, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Zhou Xianwang said "it was possible to add about 1,000 cases" based on the number of patients in hospital being tested or undergoing observation in the city.
Officials told reporters earlier on Sunday that information on the new virus is limited even though the pathogen was identified relatively quickly, and its transmission is increasing. The shipping and sale of wild animals won't be allowed until the outbreak is over, the government said in a separate statement. Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets have been blamed as incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
The virus has so far spread from Chinese cities, including the capital Beijing, to countries around the world including Singapore, the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Australia, France, Canada and Nepal.
In Singapore, the Ministry of Health confirmed a fourth case of the Wuhan virus on Sunday.
Meanwhile, more deaths were reported in regions outside of Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, and the number of confirmed infections surged to 1,975 as of Sunday (Jan 26), with 688 of them new cases. Of those, 324 people were considered to be in severe condition.
Among the new deaths, 13 were in Hubei, the province at the heart of the outbreak. On Sunday, Hubei aviation authorities announced the suspension of all flights in the entire province, except for the Shennongjia airport in the north-west.
In a worrying sign for containment efforts, the financial hub of Shanghai reported its first death from the virus - an 88-year-old man with pre-existing health problems. The death was the first reported in a major city outside of Wuhan.
At least 52 people have now died in total in Hubei, two in central Henan province, one in Heilongjiang in the northeast and one in Hebei in the north.
Hubei's health authorities separately reported 323 new confirmed cases of the virus, which first emerged in the provincial capital, Wuhan, in late December.
National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei told a press conference on Sunday 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.
China's President Xi Jinping warned Saturday that China faced a "grave situation". Teams from Beijing are being sent to hard-hit areas to push local governments to "comprehensively strengthen front-line prevention and containment," according to a statement issued on Saturday after Xi led a meeting of the Communist Party's top leaders.
Reports have emerged of hospitals at the center of the outbreak struggling to cope with growing numbers of sick people.
Criticism of the government's handling of the crisis on Chinese social media has centered on the initial response by authorities in Wuhan. "Where is that person? He is not on the front line," one user wrote on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, in an apparent reference to Xi.
State media has maintained a steady drumbeat of positive news about the outbreak, praising the sacrifices of responders and everyday people. But there was little doubt the disease had derailed celebrations of the Chinese New Year, the country's biggest holiday and busiest travel period.
The World Health Organisation this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can continue to contain the epidemic.
Canada is the 16th country or territory to confirm it has someone infected - a man who returned to Toronto on Jan 22 after visiting Wuhan.
US President Donald Trump, who is negotiating a trade agreement with China, on Friday praised its efforts to control the outbreak and thanked Xi.
The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States and will offer a limited number of seats to private US citizens on a Tuesday flight to San Francisco. Other countries, including France, Australia and Japan, have said they are considering options to get their citizens out of Wuhan.
Authorities in Hubei Province, which includes Wuhan, issued an urgent appeal for protective clothing, face masks for civilians and surgical masks for doctors, goggles and disinfectant to help contain the epidemic, the People's Daily reported.
A doctor suspected of having the coronavirus died on Saturday in Hubei, according to local media. It's not immediately clear if the 62-year-old specialist was working on the front lines to treat the illness.
Beijing's municipal health commission said on Sunday a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir made by AbbVie Inc are part of the National Health Commission's latest treatment plan, and its hospitals have supplies of the medicine if needed.
China's Global Times on Sunday tweeted that the nation's Center for Disease Control and Prevention will start developing a vaccine to treat patients.
The China Development Bank approved an emergency loan of 2 billion yuan (S$390million) for Wuhan to provide medical aid, emergency gear and expenses for epidemic prevention and control, according to a statement.
The People's Liberation Army sent 450 medical personnel, including those who've had experience in fighting viral pandemics, to Wuhan to help out at local hospitals, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
The containment efforts come during the Chinese New Year holiday, the country's biggest celebration during which billions of trips are typically taken for vacation and visiting of family.
Public events to mark the new year were cancelled. Shanghai Disneyland announced that it was closing indefinitely, cinema chains cancelled movie screenings and Starbucks shut several outlets. The halt to activity comes during what is usually a peak period for spending.
On Saturday, when they should have been celebrating the holiday, people waiting at one Wuhan hospital complained bitterly.
"It takes at least five hours to see a doctor," one woman, who didn't want to be named, told AFP.
One man in his 30s said some people had to queue for two days. Many people brought their own chairs.
The dramatic rise in the death count in China signals the virus isn't yet under control despite aggressive steps by authorities there to limit movement for millions of people who live in cities near the center of the outbreak.
Those limits expanded on Saturday as the government banned all outgoing overseas group tours as of Monday after suspending domestic group tours on Friday.
Authorities have also started to curtail travel in other parts of the country.
The cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Xi'an, Shanghai and the provinces of Shandong and Hebei prohibited long-distance buses from entering and leaving the city. In addition, Beijing said it would delay reopening the city's kindergartens, schools and universities.
Taiwan fines patient, Malaysia detains dodgers
While movement from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, and nearby areas has been limited, thousands of people left the region for other points before the bans took effect. In the US, two cases have been confirmed in people who returned from China, while Europe's first cases were identified in France.
Countries around the world have put in placed screening measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Malaysia - which confirmed its fourth case on Sunday, all of whom are Chinese nationals - detained a family of three from China at an airport for dodging quarantine, The Star reported. The toddler was suspected of being infected with the virus but parents of the child ignored hospital orders and said they had to catch a flight back to China, the report said.
The cases in Malaysia were a woman and her two grandchildren - Chinese nationals from Wuhan - who had travelled from Singapore. They are related to a 66-year-old man and and his son who had tested positive for the virus in Singapore.
In a separate case announced late Saturday, Malaysia said a 40-year-old man and Wuhan native arrived in the country from Singapore by bus with a 17-member tour group. The health ministry is monitoring the group, CCTV reported.
Taiwan's official Central News Agency, citing health authorities, reported that a man was fined NT$300,000 (S$13,500) after he failed to report symptoms of a respiratory infection after traveling to Wuhan. He visited a nightclub without wearing a face mask the day after he returned to Taiwan, and a female employee later developed symptoms including a cough, according to the report. She has since been quarantined.
Australia on Saturday reported four confirmed cases in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. Three had travelled to China, while one was a Wuhan man who flew into Melbourne on Jan 19. On Sunday, the Sydney Morning Herald said a fifth person had potentially contracted the virus and confirmation was expected on Monday.
Hong Kong 's Disneyland announced it was shutting its doors on Sunday until further notice over the outbreak, a day after city authorities raised its response to the highest "emergency" level.
France's Health Ministry confirmed three cases of the coronavirus late Friday, the first reported infections in Europe.
In the US, three cases have been reported and health authorities are monitoring more than 60 people for potential infection. The latest case was an individual from Wuhan who had travelled to Orange County, California.
Scientists around the globe have been working to understand the virus better, how contagious it is and where it comes from.
It has sparked fears that the disease could rival Sars.
The virus has an incubation period of about two weeks before infected people start to show symptoms, which resemble a cold or flu, the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) said.
The CDC said it's working to get tests for the virus out to states so they can more quickly identify cases. Currently, samples have to be sent to the CDC for analysis.
A study by the medical journal The Lancet, published on Friday, raised new concerns that people infected with the coronavirus might be able to spread it even if they do not have flu-like symptoms.
Meanwhile, two separate scientific analyses of the epidemic found that each person infected with the coronavirus is passing the disease on to between two and three other people on average at current transmission rates.
Whether the outbreak will continue to spread at this rate depends on the effectiveness of control measures, the scientists who conducted the studies said.