BEIJING — Chinese health authorities sought to impose a quasi-quarantine around Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, Tuesday as they stepped up efforts to stop the spread of a mystery virus that has now claimed six lives.
With confirmation that the pneumonialike coronavirus can be transmitted from person to person, and with hundreds of millions of Chinese packing onto public transport to make their annual pilgrimages home, a new sense of panic has erupted here.
Long lines formed at pharmacies and convenience stores around the country as people rushed to buy surgical masks, with unlucky customers posting photos on social media of bare shelves. People around the country canceled their trips home for the Spring Festival — the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar.
“I don’t really dare to go to the airport right now, or even to the movie theater,” said Xie Jing, a 33-year-old who works in advertising in Shanghai, where there have been two confirmed cases of coronavirus. She canceled her planned trip home to Sichuan, where two cases are suspected.
“Everyone is being very careful at the moment in Shanghai, everyone is wearing masks on the streets,” Xie said.
The Geneva-based World Health Organization said it would call an emergency meeting on Wednesday to decide whether to designate the outbreak as an international public health emergency. Australia and the Philippines are the latest countries with suspected cases of infection.
The virus was first detected on Dec. 31 and was linked to a dirty food market in Wuhan, not far from one of the main train stations, where wild animals including wolf pups and civet cats had been on sale for consumption.
A total of 298 people in China had been confirmed with the virus at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, the National Health Commission said, an increase of more than 70 from Monday. The vast majority of cases are in Wuhan, where Mayor Zhou Xianwang said six people had now died from the virus.
Initially, doctors thought that the virus was not communicable between humans, but cases of infection across the country, including among people who have not been to Wuhan, proves that it can be passed on. Some 54 people across 14 provinces are being monitored for possible infection.
The spread has led specialists to urge travelers not to move in and out of the central Chinese city.
“We hope people can avoid going to Wuhan if possible and that people in Wuhan can stay there,” said Zeng Guang, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the leader of a government team of experts responding to the outbreak. “This is not a call from the officials but a suggestion from us in the expert team.”
Still, he said it was “inevitable” that the virus would continue to spread as people moved around the country for the turning of the Lunar New Year, which occurs this Saturday.
The Ministry of Transport estimates 400 million people will be on the move, making a total of three billion trips during this period.
Health authorities deployed more infrared thermometers to Wuhan airport and train stations to check passengers for fever, while some hotels in the central Chinese city also began requiring temperatures to be taken before customers could check in. Outbound group tours have been restricted.
Traffic police began conducting random checks on vehicles traveling in and out of the city to make sure they weren’t transporting live birds or wild animals.
Some airlines and travel agencies began to offer refunds to people traveling out of Wuhan or people with the virus.
The measures come after criticism that Wuhan authorities had been too lax in stopping the spread of the virus, which first appeared on Dec. 31.
On Saturday, as the virus exploded in Wuhan, the city held potluck banquets to celebrate the looming new year, attended by more than 40,000 families. News and photos of the event appeared on the front page of the state-run newspaper in Wuhan Sunday, but amid criticism about the lack of precautions being taken, was deleted from the Internet by Tuesday.
The city had still planned to go ahead with 41 large-scale events for holiday celebrations, advertising them on Monday, but announced Tuesday that they had been “postponed.” Schools and universities are on break for Spring Festival, but more than 100 extracurricular “cram” schools in Wuhan have canceled classes.
Quarantine was the most effective way to stop the virus from being transmitted between infected people, since it spreads by droplets from the nose and mouth, said Zhong Nanshan, the leader of a group of experts at China’s National Health Commission.
“Now our big concern is if a super spreader emerges,” Zhong said at a news conference in the southern province of Guangdong on Tuesday, using the term for a carrier who infects a disproportionately high number of people. A “super spreader” is thought to have passed the virus on to 15 medical staff at a Wuhan hospital.
Although some hospitals have been stockpiling antibiotics, they are not effective against viruses. “There’s no specific drug to treat the infection at the moment,” Zhong said.
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said it was the seventh type of coronavirus known to affect human beings. The previously known six viruses include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which are linked to animals.
The Chinese health authorities have added this new type of pneumonia to the Class B list of infection diseases, in the same category as SARS and HIV. But they said they would enforce the strictest controls, usually used for the most dangerous class A diseases like cholera and the plague, to try to contain the coronavirus.
That meant authorities could forcibly quarantine people with or suspected to have the coronavirus, and would update the public on every single new case nationwide. Immigration authorities have also listed the new pneumonia in the list of certifiable infectious diseases.
In Australia, Queensland health authorities said they were monitoring a man who had been to visit family in Wuhan then returned to Brisbane with symptoms of a respiratory illness. Australia, which receives about one million Chinese tourists a year, has now begun screening passengers arriving on the three weekly flights from Wuhan to Sydney.
In the Philippines, the Department of Health said that it was monitoring a 5 year-old who arrived in Cebu from Wuhan with a fever and cough.
Cases have also been confirmed in Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said that there was not a complete ban on movement in and out of Wuhan.
“The Wuhan government has already taken measures to control the flow of people leaving Wuhan,” said Geng Shuang, a spokesman at the ministry “I understand when they are leaving or when they are entering, there will be checks, but there’s not a complete ban of all people leaving.”
The government was sharply criticized for downplaying or covering up the extent of the SARS virus in the early 2000s, but experts said that Chinese authorities had learned many lessons in the 17 years since then.
“The new pneumonia in Wuhan reminds many people of the SARS epidemic in 2003,” said a social media account run by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, vowing not to repeat those mistakes.
“Self-deception will only make the epidemic worse and turn a natural disaster that was controllable into a man-made disaster at great cost,” said the post, which was later deleted. “Only openness can minimize panic to the greatest extent.”
Fortuitously, Wuhan is home to the highest biosafety level laboratory in China, a level four facility that opened only two years ago and is designed for work on the most dangerous microbes, like Ebola and Lassa fever.
When it opened, the lab was hailed as a “significant breakthrough” in building China’s public health defense system, with state media calling it an “aircraft carrier” for virus research and a facility that put up “firewall virus protection” for the country of 1.4 billion people.
Lyric Li, Liu Yang and Wang Yuan contributed to this report.