The mysterious virus spreading through China that has killed 17 and left 630 people sick has led Beijing to lock down entire cities, restrict travel, and cancel major holiday celebrations ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year this weekend.
Public health officials fear that the coronavirus will still be hard to contain, despite the measures taken to limit travel from Wuhan, the central China city where it first emerged in December.
“A bigger outbreak is certain,” Guan Yi, a Hong Kong–based infectious disease expert, told Caixin. In 2003, Guan helped identify the source of SARS, which was also a coronavirus. The SARS outbreak infected thousands and killed 774 people after spreading to five continents.
“We have passed through the ‘golden period’ for prevention and control,” Guan said. “What’s more, we’ve got the holiday traffic rush and a dereliction of duty from certain officials.”
The virus came from a Wuhan market that sells poultry and exotic animal meats. Public health officials have pointed to bamboo rats, Chinese horseshoe bats, badgers, and snakes as potential sources of the disease. Concerns arose last week when it became clear that the virus could be transferred between humans.
Like other coronaviruses, this one results in flu-like symptoms for those infected. So far, the people who have died from the virus have largely been elderly or already ill. According to the Chinese government, the victims have had cirrhosis of the liver, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, among other existing conditions.
The virus has arrived in China at a terrible time. This weekend marks the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, which see hundreds of millions of Chinese travel around and out of the country.
Both Wuhan, home to 11 million, and the nearby city Huanggang, home to 7 million, have been locked down amid fears of further spread. Flights, trains, buses, subways and ferries are closed. Other small cities in the region have also been placed under travel restrictions, and in Beijing, major holiday celebrations have been canceled.
The virus has spread to at least six countries, including Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States. The first case in the U.S. was found in a Seattle man in his 30s who had recently traveled to China. According to officials in Washington, the man is in a special isolation unit but doing well.