Coronavirus: China bars 11m residents from leaving city at centre of outbreak

Lily Kuo in Beijing and agencies
Photograph: Yuan Zheng/EPA

Chinese authorities have suspended all outbound public transport from Wuhan, the city at the centre of an outbreak of the mysterious Sars-like coronavirus, which has so far killed 17 people.

Bus, subway, ferry and long-distance passenger transportation networks from the city were suspended from 10am local time on Thursday, state media reported. The city’s airport and train stations were also closed to outgoing passengers.

The government asked citizens not to leave the city of 11 million unless there were special circumstances, state media said.

The latest death toll, announced by the provincial government of the central province of Hubei, where the virus is believed to have originated, almost doubles the previously estimated total.

More than 540 people who have contracted the virus have been taken to hospital with breathing difficulties. Many more are thought to have developed a milder form of the illness, which is mainly passed through the respiratory tract. On Thursday, authorities said 571 people had been infected. The first case of the virus was also confirmed in Hong Kong.

Related: Coronavirus: airports around the world carry out screenings

China is in the midst of a public health crisis as a new strain of coronavirus, from the family of viruses that gave rise to Sars, has swept the country. Officials said the nation was now at the most critical stage of prevention and control, especially as China prepares to celebrate the lunar new year on 25 January and hundreds of millions will crisscross the country.

“Spring festival is just around the corner … which objectively increases the risk of the disease spreading and the difficulty of prevention and control. We must not be careless, and we must be highly vigilant,” said Li Bin, deputy director of the commission.

“The virus may mutate, and there is a risk of further spread of the virus,” he said. The public have been advised to avoid densely populated areas.

The World Health Organization put off a decision over whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency and asked its expert committee on the issue to continue their meeting for a second day on Thursday.

The Who’s director general said that the emergency measures taken by authorities in Wuhan showed commitment to minimising risks locally and abroad.

“What they are doing is a very, very strong measure and with full commitment,” said Dr Tedros Ahanom Ghebreyesus. “We stressed to them that by having a strong action not only they will control the outbreak in their country but they will also minimise the chances of this outbreak spreading internationally.”

In the last week, the number of confirmed infections has more than tripled and cases have been found in 13 provinces, as well as the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin. The deaths have all taken place in Hubei province. The commission said more than 2,000 close contacts have been identified and more than 1,000 were under current medical watch.

Li said the increase in cases was the result of deeper understanding of the disease and improvements in screening for it. Wuhan, the central Chinese city in Hubei province where the outbreak is believed to have originated in a market, has been put under tighter supervision, Li said, with the sale of live poultry banned. Wild animals and poultry are no longer allowed in the city, he said.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?


It a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.


What other coronaviruses have there been?


Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. Chinese authorities initially played Sars cases down, and were subsequently much criticised because the virus spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.


What are the symptoms caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?


The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. Antiviral drugs may be used, but usually only lessen the severity of symptoms. 


Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?


China’s health ministry has confirmed human-to-human transmission. As of 21 January the Chinese authorities had acknowledged 217 cases, double the number previously reported, and four deaths. Those who have died are known to have been already in poor health - but mild cases may not be reported at all.


How worried are the experts?


There are fears that the coronavirus may spread more widely and person to person during the Chinese new year holidays at the end of this month, when millions of people travel home to celebrate. At the moment, it appears that people in poor health are at greatest risk, as is always the case with flu. But the authorities will be keen to stop the spread and anxious that the virus will become more potent than so far appears.

Sarah Boseley Health editor


The local government has cancelled public activities during the holiday, including the annual prayer-giving at the city’s Guiyan Temple, which attracted 700,000 tourists last year.

Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, urged residents to not leave the city and visitors to avoid it so that the possibility of transmission can be reduced.

“If it’s not necessary we suggest that people don’t come to Wuhan,” Zhou told state broadcaster CCTV.

Fever scanners have been set up at the city’s train station and airport and officials check the temperatures of drivers at highway checkpoints, while outbound tour groups have been banned from leaving the city. Taiwan’s China Airlines and Singapore’s Scoot cancelled flights into Wuhan on Thursday.

The commission noted the virus is being treated as a class A disease, which means authorities can quarantine patients and put affected areas on lockdown.

Related: Coronavirus timeline: from Wuhan to Washington state

Li said the government had implemented measures to prevent further spread, including adding temperature checks, minimising large crowds, more screening of potentially infected patients and more protections for health workers.

The virus has also been confirmed outside of China, in the US, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. On Wednesday, Thailand confirmed four new cases of the virus while Macau reported its first cases, and officials have introduced health screenings at all airports that have daily flights from Wuhan, including Suvarnabhumi, Don Mueng, Chiang Mai and Phuket.

As many as 1,400 tourists from Wuhan visit Thailand every day, according to local media, with many more expected to travel to celebrate the lunar new year.

Hong Kong, which was hit particularly hard by Sars, confirmed its first case on Wednesday, according to local media.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has appealed to citizens not to visit central China. “I want to call on our nationals please not to visit this region if not necessary,” Tsai Ing-wen wrote on her Facebook page late on Tuesday, referring to Wuhan.

North Korea has also banned foreign tourists to guard against the spread of a new virus from China, one tour operator said. The temporary closing of the North Korean border would begin on Wednesday, according to Young Pioneer Tours.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said that it will allow cabin crew to wear surgical masks on mainland flights, after a flight attendant union said it had been flooded with messages of concern from members.

Investor nerves over the spread of a deadly new virus from China rattled Asian equities and oil benchmarks on Thursday. Hong Kong and Shanghai both dropped 0.9% in morning trade while Tokyo was 0.6% lower.

Sydney and Seoul both fell 0.6% but Taipei was up 0.2%.

Additional reporting by Rebecca Ratcliffe