China has locked down, Wuhan a city of 11 million people considered the epicentre of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed 17 and infected nearly 600 people, as health authorities around the world work to prevent a global pandemic.
The previously unknown coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in the central Chinese city.
It has now spread to other major population centres including Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Cases have been detected as far away as the United States, stoking fears the virus is already spreading worldwide.
Chinese authorities have confirmed 571 cases and 17 deaths as of end-Wednesday, state television reported on Thursday. There are eight other known cases around the world – Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.
Wuhan’s local government said it would shut down all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights from the city as of 10 a.m. (0200 GMT) Thursday, state media reported, adding that the government is urging citizens to not leave the city in the absence of special circumstances.
Contrasting with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people, China’s communist government has this time given regular updates to try to avoid panic as millions of people travel for the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said during a visit to Wuhan that authorities needed to be open about the spread of the virus and their efforts to contain it, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday, comments likely to reassure global health experts.
After a meeting at its Geneva headquarters on Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it would decide on Thursday whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, which would step up the international response.
If it does so, it will be the sixth international public health emergency to be declared in the last decade.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva that China’s actions so far were “very strong” but called in Beijing to take “more and significant measures to limit or minimize the international spread”.
“We stressed to them that by having a strong action not only they will control the outbreak in their country but they will also minimize the chances of this outbreak spreading internationally. So they recognize that,” he said.