Coronavirus spreading with new cases reported around the world as China restricts movement in multiple cities

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Medical staff transfer a patient suspected to have the new coronavirus at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong.

New cases of the Wuhan coronavirus have been reported across the world, as China moved overnight to lock down multiple cities with a combined population of more than 18 million.

Key points:

  • A new hospital will be built in Wuhan to treat coronavirus sufferers, to be completed in just six days
  • More than 630 cases have been reported across China, with 18 confirmed deaths
  • China has now put multiple cities under lockdown to curb the outbreak

There are now nearly 650 cases of novel coronavirus reported globally with 18 confirmed deaths, all bar one in the Hubei province of China.

Health authorities in Hebei, just south of Beijing, said on Thursday an 80-year-old man infected with the coronavirus had died there, marking the first confirmed death outside Hubei. 

He died on Wednesday but was not confirmed to have been infected with the virus until Thursday. All of the deceased are said to have been elderly and beset with other chronic health issues.

Eight other countries have reported patients with the virus — all either residents of Wuhan or recent visitors to the city.

a woman points a device as people walk past her at an airport

Singapore confirmed its first case on Thursday — a Chinese resident of Wuhan.

Vietnam said two Chinese citizens had tested positive. An Indian nurse working in Saudi Arabia has also been infected, Indian authorities said, although Saudi health authorities said there had been no cases in the country so far.

Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have reported one each.

Authorities say they have also confirmed 2,197 cases where people have had close contact with patients.

Airports worldwide are screening passengers arriving from China with the US warning travellers to exercise increased caution in China.

Hong Kong, which has two confirmed cases, is turning two holiday camps into quarantine stations as a precaution. Taiwan has banned anyone from Wuhan from going to the island.

Travellers wearing face masks walk with their luggage at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan

Lockdown unmatched in size

The open-ended lockdowns in China are unmatched in size, embracing more people than the populations of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago put together.

The train station and airport in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, were shut down yesterday, and ferry, subway and bus services were halted

Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces in the city of 11 million were eerily quiet.

Police checked all incoming vehicles but did not close off the roads.

Authorities announced similar measures would take effect on Friday in the nearby cities of Huanggan, a city of about 7 million people, and Ezhou. 

The skyline of Wuhan's Xibeihu area at dusk. There are skyscrapers and bright lights, and the sky is pink and blue.

In Huanggang, theatres, internet cafes and other entertainment centres were also ordered closed.

In the capital, Beijing, officials cancelled “major events” indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of holiday celebrations, in order to “execute epidemic prevention and control”. 

The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing that is now a museum, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.

Wuhan virus ‘super-spreaders’

Wuhan virus 'super-spreaders'

One of China’s top health experts warns potential “super-spreaders” could worsen the impact of the new coronavirus strain, which can now be passed between humans.

China’s Finance Ministry said on Thursday it was allocating 1 billion yuan ($211 million) in funding to the Hubei provincial government to help with efforts to contain the outbreak.

Hubei has been the hardest hit region by the outbreak, which began in the province’s capital Wuhan.

“The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history,” said Gauden Galea, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) representative in Beijing.

Meanwhile, authorities in Wuhan will build a dedicated hospital to treat patients, which it aims to complete in six days, state media outlet Beijing News reported, citing an unnamed source at the construction company that will build it.

Efforts to identify and stop the virus

Preliminary research suggests the virus was passed to humans from snakes, but Chinese government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan has also identified badgers and rats as possible sources.

The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are a number of unknowns surrounding it. It is too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people.

World Health Organisation member sitting on a panel with microphones in front of them.

There is no vaccine for the virus, which can spread through respiratory transmission. Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and cough, similar to many other respiratory illnesses.

China says the virus is mutating. It says there is evidence of respiratory transmission.

“We don’t want to overstate the panic here because there is so much uncertainty,” said Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of research charity Wellcome Trust.

“We want to keep a sort of calm, moderated approach to it, but we do have to take this incredibly seriously because you don’t often get an animal virus coming into humans, passing between humans and being spread by the respiratory route.”

Michael Ryan, head of the WHO emergencies programme, said data presented from China revealed almost three quarters of the cases were in people aged over 40, with some 40 per cent having underlying health conditions.

The WHO was deliberating on whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, which would step up international response, but announced during a news conference on Thursday that it decided not to do so.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while the outbreak clearly rose to an emergency in China, “it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one”.

The decision “should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious or that we’re not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Mr Ghebreyesus said. 

“WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day.”

Should Australians be worried?

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The United Nations health agency made the decision after independent experts spent two days assessing information about the spread of the newly identified coronavirus.

“It’s too early to consider this as a public health emergency of international concern,” Didier Houssin, the chair of the emergency advisory committee, said, noting that the panel “was very divided, almost 50-50.”

WHO defines a global health emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. 

Previous global health emergencies have been declared for the emergence of Zika virus in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic, and polio.

Work to start on three possible vaccines

The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003 and killed about 800 people.

A computer artwork of a spherical virus particle covered in tiny protrusions.

The previously unknown virus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Three separate research teams backed by a global coalition set up to fight epidemic diseases are to start work on developing potential vaccines against the new coronavirus within a year.

Developing new vaccines has traditionally taken up to a decade, but the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which is funding two of the projects and co-funding the third, said the aim now is to work much faster.

Its plan is to have at least one potential vaccine in clinical trials by June, offering the chance that a shot could be fully developed, tested and approved for use in a year.

The research will be conducted by drug and vaccine developer Moderna working with the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; the US firm Inovio Pharma, and a team at the University of Queensland, Australia.

A person wearing a white biohazard suit leans on a window of a high-rise building.

The new coronavirus is known as nCoV-2019.

Each of the three projects will test a distinct scientific approach to developing a preventative vaccine.

“Our aspiration with these technologies is to bring a new pathogen from gene sequence to clinical testing in 16 weeks,” said Richard Hatchett, CEPI’s chief executive.

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“There are no guarantees of success, but we hope this work could provide a significant and important step forward in developing a vaccine for this disease.”

CEPI’s hope is to enable vaccine platform technology that has already been advanced for other infectious diseases such as MERS and Ebola to be used to hasten progress, Mr Hatchett said.

Infectious disease epidemics such as Ebola outbreaks in Africa, the Zika outbreak that spread from Brazil, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak, are sporadic, unpredictable and fast-moving. Yet developing vaccines to combat them has traditionally taken up to 10 years or more.

CEPI was set up at the start of 2017 with the aim of dramatically speeding up the process.