The latest death toll, released by the Chinese authorities on the evening of Wednesday 22 January, was 17 dead and 500 people infected.
China is deploying major resources against the new coronavirus that has begun to spread to the rest of the world, putting the metropolis of Wuhan, at the heart of the epidemic, under de facto quarantine as of Thursday 23 January.
Since 10 a.m. local time, no more trains or planes are supposed to leave the city of 11 million inhabitants located in the centre of the country. “Residents should not leave Wuhan without a specific reason,” announced the headquarters in charge of the fight against the epidemic at the municipal level.
The city on the banks of the Yangtze River is at the heart of the epidemic, which since December has infected more than 500 people and killed 17 people, according to a latest report released Wednesday evening. All the dead have died in Wuhan or its region.
Stranded petrol stations
As the decision to quarantine was announced overnight, the residents of Wuhan (pronounced “Wou-ranne”) were unable to plan a possible departure. Early in the morning, it was still possible to leave the town by car, according to a reporter on the news website The Paper.
At the city’s highway exits, police officers stopped some vehicles to take the body temperature of the occupants, according to this source. Queues were forming in front of some gas stations, while many others were running out of fuel.
It was still possible to reach the city by train or plane, although many flights were cancelled. But even inside Wuhan, public transportation was at a standstill and the New Year’s festivities were cancelled.
The turmoil began when a Chinese scientist admitted that the virus could be transmitted from human to human and not just from animal to human. President Xi Jinping gave the signal for mobilisation on Monday by calling for a “resolute” halt to the epidemic, which until then had not made the headlines.
New meeting at WHO
In Geneva, the Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, welcomed the “very, very strong” measures taken by China, believing that they would “reduce” the risks of spreading beyond its borders.
They came at a time when the WHO had convened its emergency committee to decide whether the new virus constituted a “public health emergency of international concern”. The experts were unable to reach agreement on the issue, so the WHO director decided to continue the meeting on Thursday from 11 a.m. (GMT).
WHO has so far only used the term international emergency for rare outbreaks requiring a strong global response, including H1N1 swine flu in 2009, the Zika virus in 2016 and Ebola fever, which has ravaged parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016 and the DRC since 2018.
The virus was spotted at a wholesale seafood market in Wuhan. Its exact origin is not yet known, but its incubation period is believed to be about 14 days. Illegal wildlife sales were taking place at this market, the National Centre for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged, although it could not say for sure whether game was the source of the outbreak.
The offending strain is a new type of coronavirus, a family with a large number of viruses. They can cause mild illnesses in humans (such as a cold) but also more serious illnesses such as SARS.
At the time of SARS in 2002-2003, WHO was strongly criticized by Beijing for its delay in sounding the alarm and trying to conceal the scale of the epidemic.