Authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan suspended all public transport on Thursday in a bid to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus believed to have originated there, while the virus has killed around 20 people and infected hundreds in the country.
The decision comes as nearly one-third of the Chinese population is expected to travel home and abroad for the Lunar New Year holiday beginning Friday.
Additionally, they asked the city’s 11 million residents not to leave the city except under special circumstances, a measure expected to greatly impact people’s livelihoods if prolonged.
The municipal authorities stopped outgoing services at the local airport and railway stations from 10 a.m., while the city’s subway, bus and ferry services were also suspended, they said.
The nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou also took similar measures, closing off their railway stations until further notice.
Huanggang city, with a population of 7.5 million, will suspend all long-distance transportation from midnight Thursday and close all tourism and entertainment places such as bars and cinemas.
Meanwhile, a Japanese person with severe pneumonia has been hospitalized in Wuhan, an official of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing said Thursday, adding that the embassy is trying to confirm whether the person has been infected by the new virus.
If the infection is confirmed, it would be the first known case among Japanese nationals.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday Japan will step up precautions against the virus.
The government will request airlines to make flight announcements urging passengers arriving in Japan from China to report if they are feeling unwell. “We will make utmost efforts to prevent the spread of infections,” Abe told a Diet session.
Health minister Katsunobu Kato said separately that the country will test samples collected from people suspected to be infected with the virus not just at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases but at clinical laboratories across Japan.
A direct flight from Wuhan to Osaka in Japan scheduled for Thursday, operated by Juneyao Airlines, was canceled, according to the operator of Kansai airport in Osaka. All Nippon Airways plans to cancel a flight to Wuhan from Narita near Tokyo on Thursday afternoon. About 500 Japanese reside in Wuhan.
The city, a major transport hub that straddles the Yangtze River, has taken the rare step of restricting travel as the coronavirus appears to be spreading rapidly, with cases also confirmed elsewhere in Asia and the United States.
Chinese authorities reported late Wednesday that 17 people have died, all in Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital. They said Thursday that over 570 people have developed pneumonia caused by the virus in 25 of China’s 31 provincial-level regions.
In confirming transmission between humans, China’s Center of Disease Control and Prevention said in its latest report that over half of the 198 infected people it surveyed had never been to the seafood market in Wuhan, where the first reported cases were linked, nor had contact with infected patients.
Based on current knowledge, the incubation period, the time from infection to the onset of symptoms, is believe to be about two weeks, according to China’s National Health Commission.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization convened an emergency meeting in Geneva to discuss whether to declare an international emergency over the outbreak.
But participants failed to reach a conclusion and decided to extend the gathering to Thursday.
In the United States, a senior State Department official called on China to swiftly respond to the situation, and with transparency, drawing lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak, during which, according to him, the Chinese government acted slow out of “fear of embarrassment or making things look worse than they are.”
“That reluctance to respond in a rapid manner again…doesn’t give the global community a secure feeling for this being managed inside China,” the official said.
Coronaviruses usually cause common-cold symptoms affecting the nose, sinuses or upper throat, and are spread through sneezing, coughing or direct contact.
Some types, however, lead to more serious, sometimes deadly respiratory diseases, like severe acute respiratory syndrome or Middle East respiratory syndrome, known as SARS and MERS, respectively.
SARS emerged and raged in China in 2003, and then spread worldwide, killing 774 people.
The new coronavirus is spreading in Asia and beyond after reports of mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan surfaced in late December. Cases of infection have been confirmed in Japan, Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere.
In an effort to tackle the situation, the U.S. State Department official also called for the incorporation of Taiwan into the WHO, from which it was expelled a year after China joined the United Nations in 1971.
Taiwan is seeking re-entry to the U.N. health body, but China remains opposed.
“This is an important time, as you are seeing corona cases popping up in Taiwan, as you’d expect because of the proximity and the movement between the two,” the official said, adding the United States hopes Beijing will see the “benefit” of bringing in Taiwan.