China on Wednesday reported hundreds more cases and 17 deaths from the new coronavirus traced to the central city of Wuhan, Hubei province, with officials warning that the virus could mutate.
State television quoted the Hubei provincial authorities as saying that 17 deaths of people confirmed infected by the novel coronavirus (nCoV) had been reported as of 1200 GMT on Wednesday, with more than 540 cases confirmed.
Tests have shown that the virus—which causes high fever, respiratory symptoms and pneumonia—is new, but comes from the same family as the SARS virus that left hundreds of people dead in 2002-2003.
Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang called on people who live there not to leave, and on people outside it not to travel there.
The outbreak comes as hundreds of millions of people take trains, planes and buses back to their hometowns in time for Lunar New Year’s Eve on Jan. 24.
“The rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading,” National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin told a news briefing.
“There has been human-to-human transmission, healthcare workers have become infected, and there is a certain degree of transmission within communities,” Li said. “The virus is mainly transmitted via breathing, and it could be mutating.”
“We cannot take this lightly. We must be very vigilant,” he said, speaking as the World Health Organization (WHO) began an emergency meeting to rule if the outbreak is a global health emergency.
Li said around 2,200 people are currently in isolation after being in contact with infected patients.
Virus is spreading
The virus has spread from Wuhan around China to population centers including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau, and Hong Kong, with cases confirmed in Thailand, the U.S., Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
There is currently no vaccine for the virus, and Hong Kong and British scientists have estimated that between 1,300 and 1,700 people in Wuhan may have been infected, amid concerns that cases are being underreported.
Travelers arriving from China are being screened at airports around the world, as Russia and the U.K. said they had stepped up quarantine controls.
Masks are now common attire for people out and about in public places in China, with retailers selling out and supplies changing hands at hugely inflated prices.
Concerns remain over a lack of transparency, and that political concerns among ruling Chinese Communist Party officials could interfere with reporting processes.
State media reported on Wednesday that eight people called in for questioning for spreading “rumors” about the virus had said it was SARS, but that nobody had been detained or punished.
Shutting down information
A resident of Shanghai who gave only her surname Ma said the government’s first impulse had been to shut down information from the outset.
“The government always thinks first about blocking things … to shut down the information and to suppress the people who disclose it,” Ma said.
“Logically, the government should be grateful to people who disclose things, because they get an early warning and have a chance to take action,” she said.
Some online comments harked back to the lack of transparency around the SARS epidemic and the persecution of whistle-blowers.
Under current rules brought in since the SARS crisis, media organizations are forced to rely only on information approved and released by media organizations on the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s whitelist, and are barred from carrying out independent reporting of breaking news.
Authorities in Hong Kong said they have set aside two holiday camps in the city for use as quarantine centers in the event of further cases of nCoV in the city.
Dozens of people have been isolated in the city’s hospitals after arriving from Wuhan with flu-like symptoms, but only one case of nCoV had been confirmed as of Wednesday.
More camps may open
Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the government would meet on Thursday to decide whether more camps should be requisitioned for quarantine measures.
“The Centre For Health Protection would have to identify these close contacts and then put them under medical surveillance,” she said.
“All these close contacts being identified by the Centre For Health Protection would be isolated in the holiday camps,” she told reporters.
The Hong Kong authorities ran several quarantine camps during the SARS outbreak of 2003.
Chan said a 39-year-old man had been identified as a “highly likely” case of nCoV after arriving by high-speed train from Wuhan with his family, and staying in a Kowloon hotel. His family have continued their journey to the Philippines.
In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health said it is working on a vaccine against nCoV, but that the process could take more than a year.
“The NIH is in the process of taking the first steps towards the development of a vaccine,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told journalists.
Fauci said it would be a few months before the first phase of the clinical trials would get under way, with a vaccine likely taking more than a year.
In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen called on the WHO not to ignore Taiwan, in spite of the democratic island’s relative diplomatic isolation at China’s behest.
“Once again, I call on the World Health Organization (WHO) not to exclude Taiwan for political reasons,” she said.
“Taiwan is on the front line of global epidemic prevention efforts, and the WHO should make space for us to participate.”
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan, Wong Siu-san, Sing Man and Chung Kuang-cheng for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Hwang Chun-mei, Gao Feng and Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.