A staff member screens arriving passengers with thermal scanners at Hankou railway station in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province, on January 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/

China is scrambling to contain the outbreak of the Wuhan virus as it mutates and spreads across Asia.

The coronavirus is being compared to SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong during 2002 and 2003.

In Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, government authorities have canceled large public events and urged visitors to stay away, telling residents not to leave the central Chinese city of 11 million people. As of 9:30pm on Wednesday, the death toll from the flu-like virus climbed to 17 with 542 confirmed cases in the country, including 444 cases in Hubei province.

“[There] is the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease,” Li Bin, the vice-minister of the National Health Commission, told a media briefing in Beijing before adding that the illness was mainly transmitted via the respiratory tract.

Already cases have been reported in other Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The disease has also been detected in Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and South Korea, as well as the United States.

But fears are growing that the virus will continue to spread with hundreds of millions of people traveling across China during the Lunar New Year holiday period, which starts this week. Millions of Chinese tourists will also be heading abroad, posing problems at international airports.

Thailand, for example, is expecting at least one million visitors from the world’s second-largest economy.

Vice-Minister Li warned:

“At present, during the Lunar New Year, the rise in the mobility of the public has increased the risk of the epidemic spreading and the difficulty of prevention and control,” Li warned, noting that the mutation of the virus could also bring further risks.

“Recently there has been a big change in the number of cases, which is related to our deepening understanding of the disease, improving diagnostic methods and optimizing the distribution of diagnostic kits.”

As the virus crosses national borders, the World Health Organization could decide on Wednesday to declare a rare worldwide public health emergency over the disease.

President Xi Jinping’s government has already classified the outbreak in the same category as the SARS epidemic, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the illness, as well as quarantine measures.

“We will step up research efforts to identify the source and transmission of the disease,” Li said, although he added that experts believe “the cases are mostly linked to Wuhan.”

Still, Chinese tourists traveling overseas for the Lunar New Year break will face new screening measures at international airports.

In Hong Kong, the Center for Health Protection revealed that 118 suspected cases had been reported so far with 30 patients in hospitals.

The first case was confirmed in Hong Kong on Wednesday of a person who had traveled from the mainland by train.

“The Wuhan disease was not as pathogenic as SARS as the death rate has remained low so far,” Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong who joined a team of medical experts on a visit to Wuhan and Beijing, said.

“But if the coronavirus mutates, it would have higher pathogenicity while the death rate among those infected would increase,” Yuen said.

On Tuesday evening, a 52-year-old businesswoman who came from Wuhan was confirmed to be infected with the Wuhan disease in Macau. She took the Express Rail Link to Zhuhai on Sunday and arrived Macau late in the evening.

Lei Chin Ion, Director of Macao Health Bureau, said the woman was in a stable condition while a couple and their female friend who were with her were in quarantine. Lei said the bureau would announce which hotel shuttle bus the woman had taken so people could go for medical checks. “The hotel staff who served the woman would be sent for checks,” he said.

Wild animals are suspected to be the primary source of the outbreak. A seafood market in Wuhan, where live animals were sold, was identified as ground zero for the virus.

“We already know that the disease originated from a market which conducted illegal transactions in wild animals,” Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said. “This might be the cause, so the disease could be on an animal, and then passed on to a human … this virus is adapting and mutating.”

In Wuhan, Mayor Zhou Xianwang urged residents not to leave the city and visitors to stay away if there is no reason for them to come. “If it’s not necessary we suggest that people don’t come to Wuhan,” Wang told CCTV, the state-run broadcaster.

Beijing has also reported daily updates on the number of cases in a bid to quell signs of public panic.

“If you increase surveillance and testing you are likely to get new numbers,” Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, said.

Significantly, a commentary published by Fitch Solutions Macro Research illustrated the challenges authorities face in containing and eradicating the disease:

“The recent identification of the Wuhan virus in China has resulted in increased vigilance towards the international spreading of infectious diseases. Epidemics will pose a persistent risk to healthcare systems in Asia due to the challenges of managing an appropriate healthcare response which includes high levels of air travel, rising urbanization as well as the globalization of the food supply chain.

“The new coronavirus strain, first discovered in the central city of Wuhan, has caused alarm because of its connection to SARS … [But then,] epidemic diseases pose a significant threat to society. Infectious disease epidemics cost the world US$60 billion each year. SARS, Zika virus and Ebola show how vulnerable the world is to epidemics of infectious diseases. For instance, the Ebola outbreak in 2014, in West Africa killed over 11,000 people and caused an estimated economic loss of $2.2 billion in the worst-affected countries in 2015 alone.”

In the meantime, China and its neighbors are on alert with Lunar New Year just days away.

– additional reporting from AFP 

Read: WHO could declare global emergency over Wuhan virus

Read: Hong Kong to check travelers coming from Wuhan

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