The United States, Japan other nations raced Tuesday to get their citizens out of the locked-down Chinese city at ground zero of a virus epidemic, as the death toll surged to 106 and the number of confirmed infections doubled to over 4,500.
Moreover, foreigners who have contracted the virus in China a pose a substantial threat as they could spread the virus after returning to their home countries.
Currently, five individuals in the United States have contracted the virus, all of whom had recently visited Wuhan and returned to Arizona, California (two cases), Illinois (Chicago) and Washington state.
The virus has spread to several countries and cities in addition to China and the U.S., including Hong Kong (eight cases), Taiwan (five), Australia (five), Macau (five), Singapore (four), Japan (four), South Korea (four), Malaysia (four), as well as France (three) Canada (two), Vietnam (two) and Nepal (one).
The contagion, which experts believe emanated from a wild animal market in the city of Wuhan last month, has triggered a desperate Chinese containment effort after spreading nationwide and to more than a dozen other countries.
The government has sealed off Wuhan and other cities in central Hubei province, effectively trapping more than 50 million people, including thousands of foreigners, in a bid to contain the virus as the high-travel Lunar New Year holiday unfolds.
Coronavirus: Death toll climbs to 106 as China tightens measures https://t.co/EqBbPvDXGD
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) January 28, 2020
“It’s deeply stressful,” Joseph Pacey, a 31-year-old Briton who teaches English in Wuhan, told AFP.
“The virus is scary, but the biggest fear for me is that this thing will go on for months, and it will get harder and harder to get supplies, and to live.”
Governments are scrambling to devise ways to safely get their citizens out of the city of 11 million.
Japan announced it would send a chartered flight to Wuhan on Tuesday evening to evacuate about 200 of 650 Japanese nationals.
“We will also bring with it aid supplies such as masks and protective suits for Chinese people as well as for Japanese nationals,” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said in Tokyo.
Read more: Army Medics deployed to Overcome virus in China
Motegi said the plane would leave Wuhan on Wednesday morning, and that efforts were being made to organize more flights.
Details and origins of Coronavirus
Since the virus first popped up in Wuhan in people who had visited a local seafood and animal market, officials could only say it likely hopped from an animal to humans.
In a new study, however, researchers sequenced the genes of 2019-nCoV (as the virus is now called), and then they compared it with the genetic sequences of more than 200 coronaviruses that infect various animals around the world.
The results of the study, detailed in the Journal of Medical Virology, suggested that 2019-nCoV likely originated in snakes.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause respiratory illnesses such as the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Most people get infected with coronaviruses at one point in their lives, but symptoms are typically mild to moderate. In some cases, the viruses can cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
These viruses are common amongst animals worldwide, but only a handful of them are known to affect humans.
The United States was also trying to organize a rescue mission.
A chartered California-bound flight with limited space had been scheduled to leave Wuhan on Tuesday with consular staff and some American citizens. But the State Department said it was postponed to Wednesday, without giving a reason.
France has also said it intends to fly its citizens out of the city in the middle of this week. Several other countries also were working to repatriate their people, while Germany said it was considering doing so.
Exposure to a sneeze or cough from an infected person appeared to be the main transmission mode, Chinese infectious disease experts told reporters on Tuesday.
To prevent huge numbers of people coming into close contact with each other, China has imposed tight transport restrictions in other parts of the country.
The new strain of corona virus spreading across China claimed its first victim in Beijing, officials, as the death toll climbed to 106, US warned citizens against trips to the country and financial markets recoiled again at the potential impact.#ARYNewshttps://t.co/SKjYDnejzF
— ARY NEWS (@ARYNEWSOFFICIAL) January 28, 2020
In the latest move, state-owned China Railway Group announced on Tuesday that it would suspend hundreds of train lines throughout the country.
China already has extended the Lunar New Year national holiday into next week to keep people at home.
And the education ministry on Tuesday said the spring semester for schools and universities would be postponed, giving no resumption date.
Death toll climbs
Despite the unprecedented measures, the virus has showed little sign of slowing down.
The National Health Commission on Tuesday announced 26 new deaths, bringing the nationwide total to 106. Confirmed infections also nearly doubled compared to Monday, to 4,515.
Nearly 7,000 more cases are suspected and awaiting confirmation. On Monday, the first infections were confirmed in Germany, Canada and Sri Lanka. Colombo followed up by imposing new visa restrictions on Chinese visitors to the island.
Read more: US stocks steady as WHO says new China virus not an emergency
President Donald Trump said the United States has offered Beijing “any help that is necessary” in combatting the virus. But the United States, Turkey and Germany were among nations urging their citizens to “reconsider” all travel to China.
Landlocked Mongolia — which is heavily dependent on trade with China — took the drastic step of closing the border with its huge neighbour to cars, while banning large gatherings and suspending classes.
Medical facilities have been overwhelmed in Wuhan, which has become a near ghost town.
China has deployed hundreds of military medics to help and is building two field hospitals, aiming to finish them in just 10 days.
Hundreds of masked workers toiled around the clock at one site, where a foundation was already taking shape and electrical switchboards were up.
“We have to work fast to combat the epidemic,” a worker in his 30s, told AFP.
Pacey, the British teacher, said he and other foreign friends in Wuhan were in contact via chat groups “to keep each other’s spirits up.”
He was rationing what food he had and hopes for a UK-organised evacuation, but complained that his government has been unresponsive.
“Things here are going to get worse, and I feel that China should be able to deal with their own citizens and not have me needing extra help,” he said.
But Wuhan’s people, who have a reputation in China for resilience, sought to project a fighting spirit.
Quarantined residents shouted “Go Wuhan” from towering apartment blocks, according to videos posted online.
A building lit up the night sky late on Monday with those words in red.
The World Health Organization last week stopped short of declaring the outbreak a global emergency, which could have prompted a more aggressive international response such as travel restrictions.
Read more: Deadly virus threatens lives in China, US and elsewhere
But the WHO on Monday admitted making an error in originally assessing the virus’ worldwide threat as “moderate”, issuing an update late Sunday saying the risk was actually “high at the global level.”
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus travelled to Beijing this week for discussions with Chinese officials to coordinate on the crisis.
GVS News Desk (Rai Mustafa Bhatti) with additional input from AFP