Face masks sold out and officials at airports and train stations checked passengers for fevers as China on Tuesday sought to control the outbreak of a new virus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush.
Anxiety grew both at home and abroad after Chinese government expert Zhong Nanshan confirmed fears on state television late Monday that the new type of coronavirus can spread from human to human.
Six people have died and 291 have been infected in China, the National Health Commission said Tuesday.
The stock prices of some companies that sell masks rose Tuesday, but markets fell in much of Asia as investors worried about the potential impact on tourism and the economy.
Concerned about a global outbreak similar to SARS, another coronavirus that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003, numerous nations have adopted screening measures for travelers from China, especially those arriving from Wuhan, the central city where the virus appears to have originated.
An airport staff member uses a temperature gun to check people leaving Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Photo: AP
Guards at Wuhan's airport pointed electronic thermometers at travelers. Several online retailers were sold out of masks, which were being sold for more than 10 times their original price. Users of the popular Weibo social media platform urged others to wash their hands and stay home.
Outside the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where many of the coronavirus patients are receiving care, several workers were dressed in full-body biohazard suits, supplemented by goggles, masks and plastic wrapped around their shoes.
While many wore masks in Wuhan, streets were far from deserted and people appeared to be carrying on with their regular activities.
"I'm not that worried," said Helen Cao, a Wuhan resident who was shopping on a downtown avenue lined with stores and full of pedestrians. Like many in the city, she began wearing a mask after hearing Zhong's assessment of human-to-human transmission.
"Maybe people from other places are more concerned about our health, but (Wuhan) locals actually are continuing to eat, go out and take strolls, go clubbing at night," Cao said. "Everything's very normal, everyone's just wearing masks, nothing more."
Initial symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.
The first cases late last month were connected to a seafood market, and transmission was thought to be occurring from animals to humans. Authorities previously had not confirmed human-to-human transmission.
People wear face masks as they ride an escalator at the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Photo: AP
In addition to 258 cases in Wuhan, more than 20 have been diagnosed in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong province in the south and Zhejiang in the east. Four cases have been confirmed overseas among Chinese travelers in South Korea, Japan and Thailand. A Taiwanese businesswoman who just returned from Wuhan tested positive for the virus, Taiwan's Centers for Disease Control reported Tuesday.
Fifteen medical workers have also tested positive for the virus, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said.
Two cases in Guangdong were people who had not visited Wuhan but fell ill after family members returned from there. Zhong cited those as evidence the disease had spread between humans.
Australia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. were among the countries increasing airport screenings. Three weekly direct flights from Wuhan to Sydney will be met by border security and biosecurity staff for assessments, chief Australian medical officer Brendan Murphy told reporters.
"Please take every possible precaution," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed the health minister and other government departments.
The coronavirus family includes those that cause the common cold, but some found in bats, camels and other animals have evolved into more severe illnesses like SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and MERS, Middle East respiratory syndrome.
The possibility the virus can be transmitted between people increases the chances it could spread faster and more widely. The Chinese government has estimated people will make around 3 billion trips during the Lunar New Year travel season, but some social media users have said they may stay home due to concern about the virus.
In his first public remarks on the illness, Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed government departments to promptly release information on the virus and deepen international cooperation.
Police stand guard outside Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Photo: AP
When SARS began infecting people in southern China, the Chinese government initially tried to conceal the severity of the epidemic, which ended up killing nearly 800 people. The cover-up was exposed by a high-ranking physician.
Gabriel Leung, dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said Chinese authorities have responded much more quickly this time.
"Our underlying assumptions are the force of infection is very different now ... because so many public health measures have been undertaken and so many interventions have been executed," Leung told reporters at a briefing.
Leung, who was heavily involved in the response to SARS, said modeling shows that cases will multiply over the coming weeks but the outbreak will gradually lose momentum as precautions take effect.
For the moment, the new coronavirus appears to be far less lethal than SARS.
"Based on current information, an animal source seems the most likely primary source of this outbreak with limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts," World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said at a briefing.
"Based on current data, some new cases seem to experience milder diseases which is within the milder end of the spectrum of symptoms caused by respiratory illnesses," Jasarevic said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang pledged rigorous measures to tackle the virus.
"We will resolutely contain the spread of the epidemic," Geng said.
Surgical masks were mandatory Tuesday at Beijing United Family Hospital, where all visitors had their temperatures taken at the entrance.
At one pharmacy in Shanghai, a shopkeeper named Liu Zhuzhen said more than 100 people had bought masks by midday. They were already sold out despite having recently been restocked.
3M, an American brand popular in China for anti-pollution masks, was sold out of masks on its official online stores on e-commerce platforms Taobao and JD.com as of Tuesday afternoon. Other retailers were selling 3M masks at a markup, including for as much as 40 yuan ($7) a mask. Websites that track online pricing show the same masks used to sell for 3 yuan (53 cents) each.
State broadcaster CCTV quoted Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang urging limitations on travel.
"Unless it's necessary, people outside should not come to Wuhan, and citizens of Wuhan should not leave the city," Zhou said.
Eight Indian tourists, including four children, were declared dead Tuesday after being found unconscious in their room at a mountain resort in Nepal, officials said.
Rescue helicopters flew the tourists to Kathmandu, where they were declared dead at a hospital in the capital, police official Hobindra Bogati said.
A doctor at the Hospital for Advanced Medicine and Surgery in Kathmandu, Kamal Thapa, said the four adults and four children showed no signs of life when they arrived at the hospital.
The eight tourists were part of a group of 15 who had traveled to Nepal from the Indian state of Kerala.
Thapa said another member of the tour group said they had tried to wake the eight around 7:30 a.m. but found them unconscious.
The group reportedly turned on a gas heater inside the room while the windows and doors were closed. Police were investigating the case.
The resort at Daman is popular with tourists for mountain views and snowfall during winter. It is about 56 kilometers (35 miles) west of Kathmandu.
The resort was fully booked so the eight tourists were sharing the same room.
Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province, has established headquarters for the control and treatment of the pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
The headquarters, headed by the mayor Zhou Xianwang, consist of eight groups including those in charge of emergency response supply, traffic, medical treatment and epidemic control, according to a meeting held on late Monday.
At the meeting, the headquarters requested setting up a medical team for the treatment of each infected patient in serious conditions, and ordered measures to protect medical staff from being infected.
Public gatherings should be reduced or cancelled, according to the meeting.
The meeting also requested measures such as the closing of the related markets, circulation control of wild animals, and supervision of body temperatures of the people at airports, railway stations and wharfs.
The headquarters will also be in charge of disclosing the latest information and progress in the prevention and control of the epidemic and spreading the prevention knowledge to eliminate social fears to the largest extent.
The pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan in December, where 198 viral pneumonia cases have been confirmed.
As of 6 p.m. Monday, a total of 224 cases had been reported in China. Of them, 217 had been confirmed and 7 remained suspected.
A fourth person has died in an outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, authorities said Tuesday, as more places stepped up medical screening of travelers from the country as it enters its busiest travel period.
The increased control measures followed a sharp rise in the number of infections to more than 200 people since last month, with epidemiologists still uncertain of its nature and mode of transmission.
Chinese health authorities confirmed late Monday that some cases had been transmitted person-to-person, a development that means the illness could spread faster and more widely, particularly at the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush.
Concerned about a global outbreak similar to SARS, which spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003, numerous nations have adopted screening measures for travelers arriving from China, especially those from the central city of Wuhan, where the outbreak is thought to have originated and which has accounted for the vast majority of the cases.
Australia's chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said his country will be increasing airport screening. Australia receives a significant number of travelers from China, including three direct flights a week from Wuhan into Sydney, and these flights will be met by border security and biosecurity staff for assessments, Murphy told reporters.
Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and other countries and regions with extensive travel links to China are also enacting stricter screening measures. At least three U.S. airports have started screening incoming airline passengers from central China.
Chinese authorities have confirmed cases in Wuhan, Beijing and Guangdong, with suspected cases in Shanghai and other parts of the country. Additionally, Thailand detected two cases among Chinese travelers and South Korean and Japan have reported one each.
The outbreak is believed to have started late last month among people connected to a seafood market in Wuhan, which had a total of 198 cases as of Monday. All four fatalities have been in Wuhan, although it wasn't clear if the latest death was a new case or one already diagnosed.
The head of the China's expert team on the illness, respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan, said two people in Guangdong province in southern China caught the virus from family members, state media said.
Some medical workers have also tested positive for the virus, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported.
Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed government departments Monday to promptly release information on the virus and deepen international cooperation.
China has notified and maintained close communication with the World Health Organization and other relevant countries and regions, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news briefing.
Wuhan has also adopted measures to control the flow of people leaving the city, Geng said.
Initial symptoms of the novel coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath, and some developed pneumonia.
On the Weibo social media platform, which is widely used in China, people posted prevention advice such as wearing masks and washing hands. Some people said they had canceled their travel plans and were staying home for Lunar New Year.
Everyone entering Beijing United Family Hospital on Tuesday was required to have their temperature checked as soon as they entered the door. The hospital provided surgical masks to all patients, who were told they had to wear them. All nurses, doctors and cleaning staff were also wearing masks.
The initial cases were connected to a seafood market in Wuhan, which has been closed for an investigation.
The family of coronaviruses cause diseases ranging from the common cold to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.
SARS first infected people in southern China in late 2002 and spread to more than two dozen countries, killing nearly 800. The Chinese government initially tried to conceal the severity of the SARS epidemic, but its cover-up was exposed by a high-ranking physician.
Unhealthy levels of smog have choked Bangkok for more than a week, as the Thai capital's residents fume over the ineffectiveness of government measures to combat the problem.
As thick haze blanketed the city on Monday, pollution levels soared to 95 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 particle at noon in some areas, according to the government's Pollution Control Department, which described that level as very unhealthy. The maximum level considered safe by the government is 50.
PM 2.5 particles are small enough to penetrate deeply into the lungs, which can cause both short-term bronchial problems as well as serious long-term health issues.
Bangkok's smog crisis results from still air and an excessive amount of ultrafine dust from vehicle emissions and other activities, Pollution Control Department Director-General Pralong Damrongthai explained in a Monday press release. He said smog is being trapped close to the ground by a blanket of warm air in what meteorologists call an inversion.
Bangkok residents have grown frustrated with the lack of progress in improving the situation. A survey by the National Institute for Development Administration released on Sunday showed 81% of the 1,256 local residents questioned agreed the government is ineffective in solving the problem. Only 2.7% of respondents approved of the government's efforts.
The Pollution Control Department issued a 52-page national action plan in October for combating dust pollution problems, but it is unclear how many, if any, of the measures it suggested were implemented. The plan mostly included guidelines for government agencies, but also discussed possible precautions and ways to measure pollutants.
Burning of fields is cited as the main reason for smog outside of Bangkok, with provinces in the central and northern regions of Thailand also blanketed in haze.
Tara Buakamsri of the environmental group Greenpeace said the current situation shows the government's strategy is failing.
"They probably think that the situation happens just only few days or few weeks and then it's gone, therefore, no concrete or long-term measures have been launched by the government," he said.
Tara also said the official maximum "safe level" of PM 2.5 of 50 micrograms per cubic meter over 24 hours was set too high.
"That level cannot protect people's health," he said. He urged the maximum safe level be reduced to 35, as it is in other places such as the United States.