Chinese president Xi Jinping has called the “accelerating spread” of the coronavirus a “grave situation”, as Beijing escalates measures to contain the illness.
In a sign of how far the disease is spreading globally, Canada also confirmed its first case of the deadly illness on Sunday.
Some 55 people have died and at least 1,975 have been infected in China as a result of the virus, which is thought to have originated in a market in the city of Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province.
Now the nation’s ruling communist party has introduced a string of new measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus – including the lockdown of 16 cities near Wuhan to restrict the movement of more than 50 million people, covering a population roughly as large as England’s.
In addition, 450 military medical staff, including some who have worked on the Sars and Ebola epidemics, have been deployed to the region.
“Life is of paramount importance,” the Chinese president reportedly told officials at an urgent politburo meeting. “When an epidemic breaks out, a command is issued. It is our responsibility to prevent and control it.”
Alongside a ban in Beijing on inter-province bus services, ride-hailing app DiDi Chuxing announced it would not offer transport services to and from the capital. Group tours were also halted across the country in a further blow to the nation’s tourism industry.
The rapid spread of the disease overshadowed the nation’s lunar new year celebrations, with events cancelled in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong due to concern about public gatherings.
On Saturday, Australia and Malaysia reported their first cases of the disease – four each – while Japan announced a third. The incidents follow on from the first cases in Europe being confirmed by France on Friday night, and a second instance of the virus in the US.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said her government will raise its response level to emergency, the highest available, and close primary and secondary schools after five people in the region who had visited Wuhan were confirmed to have been infected.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the Department of Health and Social Care has said it carried out 31 tests for the coronavirus and all were confirmed negative.
In response to the continued spread, US officials have arranged a charter flight to bring citizens and diplomats back from the epicentre. Russia is also believed to be looking into evacuating the region of its citizens, according to the state’s RIA news agency.
French automotive group PSA, maker of the Peugeot and Citroen brands, has offered a similar service to their staff in the area.
Two separate studies – one conducted by Imperial College London and another by Lancaster University – have said that for every person currently infected, the disease is passed on to between two and three people.
“It is unclear at the current time whether this outbreak can be contained within China,” said Professor Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease specialist at Imperial College London
Testing for the disease could also be complicated by the way the virus presents in patients. Two of the three people who have been diagnosed with the virus in France arrived in the country without showing symptoms, doctors at a Paris hospital told reporters.
However, French officials have said they feel that the threat of a full-blown outbreak remains low in Europe.
Leading physician Dr Yazdan Yazdanpanah said cases imported from China were “not a surprise” and that France had prepared, including by developing a test that provides rapid results for suspected cases.
On the other hand, he said, the chance of “an epidemic in France or in Europe is weak, extremely weak”.