Fears are growing that the deadly new coronavirus will infect tens of thousands of people and could drag on into the summer.
Already the death toll has hit 106 with more than 4,000 suffering from 2019-nCoV across China after the outbreak started in Wuhan last month.
“The best-case scenario, you would have something … where we go through the spring into the summer, and then it dies down,” David Fisman, a professor at the University of Toronto who wrote an analysis of the virus for the International Society for Infectious Diseases, said.
On Tuesday, China urged its citizens to postpone trips abroad as the country expands a massive effort to contain the disease.
The recommendation to delay non-essential travel was issued “in order to protect the health and safety of Chinese and foreign people”, the National Immigration Administration announced in a statement.
“Reducing people’s cross-border movement helps to prevent and control outbreaks,” the agency added.
Authorities had already suspended domestic and overseas Chinese group tours as part of nationwide efforts to combat the outbreak.
In 2018, Chinese nationals took almost 150 million trips abroad, the official Xinhua news agency reported in May.
But slowing the spread of the virus in China has become the key priority as the cases of infection soar.
“It’s not something that’s going to end the next week or the next month,” Alessandro Vespignani, a professor at Northeastern University, said. He is part of a group of researchers that manages an online dashboard about the outbreak.
Still, epidemiologists do not have a crystal ball. They have only piecemeal information on the new virus, which appeared in December. They use mathematical models to estimate the actual number of cases, as of the current data, and compare them to past outbreaks, but many of their hypotheses remain uncertain.
Until last weekend, researchers thought that infected people were not contagious until they began exhibiting symptoms, such as fever, respiratory problems, and pneumonia. But Chinese authorities reported that they had established the opposite.
In recent days, multiple experts have calculated an important parameter for any outbreak: the basic reproduction number. It represents the number of people contaminated by an infected person. Estimates range from 1.4 to 3.8, according to Fisman, figures that are considered moderate.
But that is only an average – some patients may infect many people, while others infect only a few. “On its own, it isn’t a reason to panic,” Maimuna Majumder, a researcher at Harvard University and at Boston Children’s Hospital, said.
Even so, the World Health Organization has warned that the risk was “very high in China, high at the regional level and high at the global level” without declaring a global emergency. “This is an emergency in China but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO in Geneva, said.
Apart from the human cost, China’s economy will take a huge hit.
Julian Evans-Pritchard, of Capital Economics, said there wasn’t “any doubt” the coronavirus outbreak would deliver a fresh blow, warning that transport and broader consumption would suffer, including dining and retail.
The Lunar New Year holiday has also been extended by three days, meaning the country may slowly get back to business next week.
Some companies told employees to work from home or stay away, including tech giant Tencent. Popular restaurant chain Haidilao has closed all its restaurants in China until the end of the month.
More than 2,000 high-speed trains have been suspended for days or weeks. Another growing sector, the film industry, has also taken a hit.
Analysts at S&P stressed that consumption contributed about 3.5 percentage points of China’s growth rate last year, and warn that even a 10% drop would knock about 1.2 percentage points off GDP.
“[After the holiday,] the true extent of the [economic] carnage will be more evident,” Stephen Innes, of AxiCorp Financial Services, said.
– reporting AFP