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China expands lockdowns to include 6 cities in bid to stop coronavirus

China broadened its unprecedented, open-ended lockdowns to encompass more than 20.5 million people Friday to try to contain a deadly new virus that has sickened hundreds, even though the measures' potential for success is uncertain.

WHO says it's 'too early' to consider the outbreak an international emergency

A display board shows a cancelled flight arrival from Wuhan at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing on Thursday. (Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press)

LATEST:

  • China closes six cities, broadening the lockdowns to encompass more than 20 million people, inf effort to curb coronavirus
  • A total of 25 people have died, health authorities say, as cases rise.
  • Beijing cancels major public events including two well-known Lunar New Year temple fairs, to close The Forbidden City.
  • WHO panel of experts meets and says it's 'too early' to call outbreak an international emergency.

China broadened its unprecedented, open-ended lockdowns to encompass more than 20.5 million people Friday to try to contain a deadly new virus that has sickened hundreds, even though the measures' potential for success is uncertain.

At least six cities have been shut down, Wuhan, Ezhou, Huanggang, Chibi, Qianjiang and Xiantao, all in central China's Hubei province, where the illness has been concentrated.

In Wuhan, where the lockdown began early Thursday, normally bustling streets, malls and other public spaces were eerily quiet. Masks were mandatory in public. The train station and airport were closed, and ferry, subway and bus service was halted; police checked all incoming vehicles but did not close off the roads.

The five other cities under lockdown as of Friday morning are near Wuhan, but authorities were taking precautions around the country. In the capital, Beijing, major public events were cancelled indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of Lunar New Year celebrations. The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing that is now a museum, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.

The number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus rose to 830 with 25 deaths, the National Health Commission said Friday morning. The first death was also confirmed outside Hubei. The health commission in Hebei, a northern province bordering Beijing, said an 80-year-old man died after returning from a two-month stay in Wuhan to see relatives.

The vast majority of cases have been in and around Wuhan or people with connections the city. Outside the mainland, cases have been confirmed in Hong Kong, Macao, the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

Many countries are screening travellers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and pneumonia.

The World Health Organization decided against declaring the outbreak a global emergency for now. The declaration can increase resources to fight a threat but that can also cause trade and travel restrictions and other economic damage, making the decision politically fraught.

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," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day."

Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns of the cities will last. While sweeping measures are typical of China's Communist Party-led government, large-scale quarantines are rare around the world, even in deadly epidemics, because of concerns about infringing on people's liberties. And the effectiveness of such measures is unclear.

"To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science," said Gauden Galea, the WHO"s representative in China, referring to Wuhan. "It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work."

Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at molecular virology at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the lockdowns appear to be justified scientifically.

"Until there's a better understanding of what the situation is, I think it's not an unreasonable thing to do," he said. "Anything that limits people's travels during an outbreak would obviously work."

WATCH | Chinese city at centre of outbreak locked down

The Chinese city where the new coronavirus started, Wuhan, has been put under quarantine while health officials are preparing a global response. 2:16

But Ball cautioned that any such quarantine should be strictly time-limited. He added: "You have to make sure you communicate effectively about why this is being done. Otherwise you will lose the goodwill of the people."

During the devastating West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, Sierra Leone imposed a national three-day quarantine as health workers went door to door, searching for hidden cases. Burial teams collecting corpses and people taking the sick to Ebola centres were the only ones allowed to move freely. Frustrated residents complained of food shortages.

After Wuhan was was closed off, images showed long lines and empty shelves at supermarkets, as people stocked up. Trucks carrying supplies into the city are not being restricted, although many Chinese recall shortages in the years before the country's recent economic boom.

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      Other cases of the virus have been reported in Thailand, the United States, South Korea and Japan, where a second case was confirmed by the health ministry on Friday.

      One case was confirmed in Hong Kong after one was earlier confirmed in Macao. Taiwan also reported an infection on Tuesday. Most were people from Wuhan or had recently travelled there. 

      Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, told global representatives in Davos on Thursday she is "cautiously confident" the city will get through the virus that threatens to inflict more pain on the protest-hit territory. Lam's statement to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps comes after Hong Kong advised against any non-essential travel to Wuhan.

      Singapore on Thursday confirmed its first case of the new strain of coronavirus. The 66-year old man who tested positive for the virus is a Chinese national and resident of Wuhan, local media said, citing Singapore's health ministry.

      WATCH: Spanish reporter takes one of the last flights into Wuhan before lockdown

      Jaime Santirso finds people confident in government's approach. 'People have faith,' he says. 6:40

      Also on Thursday, Vietnam's health ministry confirmed two Chinese citizens are infected with the new coronavirus.

      An Indian minister incorrectly said an Indian nurse working in Saudi Arabia tested positive for the virus. But an official later said the nurse contracted MERS-Co-V, an earlier-known type of the virus.

      The significant increase in illnesses reported just this week come as millions of Chinese travel for the Lunar New Year, one of the world's largest annual migrations of people. Analysts have predicted that the reported cases will continue to multiply.

      China's capital city Beijing cancelled major public events including two well-known Lunar New Year temple fairs, the state-run Beijing News said on Thursday.

      WATCH: Canada better prepared for the coronavirus than it was for SARS, says infectious disease specialist 

      'It's like night and day,' says Dr. Michael Gardam, who says there is still much to learn about the new virus.   6:43

      "Even if [the number of cases] are in the thousands, this would not surprise us," Galea said, adding, however, that the number of cases is not an indicator of the outbreak's severity, so long as the mortality rate remains low.

      The new virus has emerged as China heads into a busy travel season. (Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press)

      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, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, which developed from camels.

      Meanwhile, a WHO panel of experts on the new coronavirus said "it is a bit too early" to consider the outbreak an international emergency.

      Still learning about disease, say Chinese health officials

      The first cases in the Wuhan outbreak were connected to people who worked at or visited a seafood market, which has since been closed for an investigation. The head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control said the outbreak may have resulted from human exposure to wild animals at first but the virus also may be mutating. Mutations can make it deadlier or more contagious among people.

      "We are still in the process of learning more about this disease," Gao Fu, the CCDC head and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said at a Wednesday news conference.

      Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert visits the Jinyintan hospital Thursday, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (China Daily vis Reuters)

      China has been credited for responding rapidly to this outbreak, in stark contrast to how it withheld information for months on SARS, allowing the virus to spread worldwide.

      One veteran of the SARS outbreak said that while there are some similarities in the new virus — namely its origins in China and the link to animals — the current outbreak appears much milder.

      Dr. David Heymann, who played a major role in the response to SARS in 2003, said the new virus appears dangerous for older people with other health conditions, but doesn't seem nearly as infectious as SARS.

      "It looks like it doesn't transmit through the air very easily and probably transmits through close contact," he said. "That was not the case with SARS."

      With files from Reuters

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