Outbreak casts pall over China new year as deaths surpass 40
BEIJING — China's most festive holiday began in the shadow of a worrying new virus Saturday as the death toll surpassed 40, an unprecedented lockdown kept 36 million people from traveling and authorities canceled a host of Lunar New Year events.
The National Health Commission reported a jump in the number of people infected with the virus to 1,287 with 41 deaths. The latest tally comes from 29 provinces across China, including 237 patients in serious condition. All 41 deaths have been in China, including 39 in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, one in Hebei and one in Heilongjiang.
Meanwhile, Australia announced its first case Saturday, a Chinese man in his 50s who last week returned from China. Malaysia said three people, relatives of a father and son from Wuhan who were earlier diagnosed with the virus in neighboring Singapore, tested positive on Saturday.
France said that three people had fallen ill with the virus — the disease's first appearance in Europe. And the United States reported its second case, involving a Chicago woman in her 60s who was hospitalized in isolation after returning from China.
On Wall Street, stocks slumped amid fears over the widening crisis, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing 170 points and the S&P 500 posting its worst day in three months. Health care companies suffered losses, along with financial institutions, airlines and other tourism and travel industry businesses.
Transportation was shut down in Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the outbreak originated, and in at least 12 other cities in central Hubei province, encompassing a population bigger than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.
Hospitals in Wuhan grappled with a flood of patients and a lack of supplies. Videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations, and some complained that family members had been turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.
Authorities in Wuhan and elsewhere put out calls for medicine, disinfection equipment, masks, goggles, gowns and other protective gear.
Wuhan officials said they are rapidly constructing a new 1,000-bed hospital to deal with the crisis, to be completed Feb. 3. It will be modeled on a SARS hospital that was built in Beijing in just six days during the 2003 SARS outbreak.
The seriousness of the crisis was still an open question.
The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold.
But it is not clear just how lethal this coronavirus is, or even whether it is as dangerous as ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S. alone. Scientists say it is also not clear if it spreads as easily as SARS, its genetic cousin, which also originated in China and killed about 800 people.
The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse. It could instead reflect better monitoring and reporting of the newly discovered virus, which can cause cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough, fever and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.
"It's still too early to draw conclusions about how severe the virus is because at the beginning of any outbreak you would focus more on the severe cases," said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva. “And then maybe we are missing some mild cases because people will just be a little bit sick and will not have it tested. And they will recover.”
In France, Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said that two infected patients had traveled in China and that France should brace for more such cases. A third case was announced in a statement from her ministry about three hours later.
“We see how difficult it is in today's world to close the frontiers. In reality, it's not possible,” she said. Buzyn said authorities are seeking to reach anyone who might have come in contact with the patients: “It's important to control the fire as quickly as possible."
In the U.S., the latest person confirmed to have the disease was reported to be doing well. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention likewise said it is expecting more Americans to be diagnosed with the virus.
Still, “CDC believes that the immediate risk to the American public continues to be low at this time, but the situation continues to evolve rapidly,” said the agency's Dr. Nancy Messonnier.
With Chinese authorities afraid that public gatherings will hasten the spread of the virus, the outbreak put a damper on Lunar New Year. Temples locked their doors, Beijing's Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland and other major tourist destinations closed, and people canceled restaurant reservations ahead of the holiday, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips, fireworks displays and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.
Wuhan's usually bustling streets, malls and other public spaces were unnervingly quiet and masks were mandatory in public. Shoppers emptied store shelves, stocking up for what could be an extended period of isolation. Karaoke bars, movie theaters and internet cafes around the region were shut down.
While most of the deaths have been older patients, a 36-year-old man in Hubei died on Thursday.
The vast majority of cases have been in and around Wuhan or involved people who visited the city or had personal connections to those infected. About two dozen cases in all have been confirmed outside mainland China, nearly all of them in Asia: Hong Kong, Macao, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Nepal, Australia and Malaysia.
Recalling the government's initial cover-up of SARS, many Chinese are suspicious of the case numbers reported by officials. Authorities have promised transparency.
China's cabinet, the State Council, announced it will be collecting information on government departments that have failed in their response to the outbreak, including “delays, concealment and under-reporting of the epidemic.”