BEIJING/SHANGHAI — Deaths from China’s new flu-like virus rose to 17 on Wednesday, with more than 540 cases confirmed, leading the city at the center of the outbreak to close transportation networks and urge citizens not to leave as fears rose of the contagion spreading.
The previously unknown coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in the central city of Wuhan. Cases have been detected as far away as the United States.
Contrasting with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people, China’s communist government has this time given regular updates to try to avoid panic as millions travel for the Lunar New Year.
After a meeting at its Geneva headquarters on Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it would decide on Thursday whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, which would step up the international response.
If it does so, it will be the sixth international public health emergency to be declared in the last decade.
“This is an evolving and complex situation,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
As it seeks to stop the spread of the virus, Wuhan’s local government said it would close all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights from the city as of 10 a.m. on Thursday (0200 GMT), state media reported, adding that the government said citizens should not leave the city unless there were special circumstances.
The measure was intended to “effectively cut off the transmission of the virus, resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic, and ensure the health and safety of the people,” state media cited Wuhan’s virus task-force as saying.
Wuhan’s move was praised by Ghebreyesus as a “very strong” measure that could minimize the risk of contagion.
“If Wuhan is taking such drastic measures, we must assume widespread community transmission in this central China megacity & transport hub,” Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, wrote in a tweet.
With more than 11 million people, Wuhan is central China’s main industrial and commercial center, home to the country’s largest inland port and gateway to its Three Gorges hydroelectric dam.
The latest death toll in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, rose to 17 by midday on Wednesday, state television quoted the provincial government as saying.
However, the virus has already spread beyond the city to population centers including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong.