BEIJING — Even as China takes more stringent measures to limit the movement of the vast country’s population during the biggest travel period of the year, there are increasing fears that the quarantine will not be enough to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, which so far has infected at least 2,800 people in China and killed 81. Here’s what we know:
With 81 dead so far, Beijing has broadened the extraordinary quarantine to more than 50 million people, but the mayor of Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter, said 5 million people have already left his city. Wuhan’s mayor admitted that the city did not release information about the virus in a timely manner but hinted that it was prevented from doing so by central authorities.
A scientific assessment of the spread of the disease, assuming an optimistic 90% quarantine, still predicted more than 59,000 infections and 1,500 deaths — twice the toll of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.
The effectiveness of an unprecedented quarantine around the viral epicenter in central China’s Hubei province has become a key question, as Chinese and international authorities ponder how to rein in the disease — and, at this point, whether it could be contained at all.
“Radical times call for radical measures,” said Dong-Yan Jin, a professor of molecular virology and oncology at Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences. “A lot of cities have followed Wuhan in announcing a lockdown, but don’t forget that many potential patients are already out there before such an administrative order. Are we going to shut down the whole country?”
Jin said Chinese authorities had missed the critical moment to control the epidemic: before the New Year’s travel rush began a week ago.
“There was a lack of transparency in Hubei and an unwillingness by local governments to face the music; now, they tend to overcompensate,” he said. “You cannot expect that to work miracles and stop the outbreak.”
Widespread suspicions on Chinese social media that government officials mishandled the early stages of the crisis were fanned dramatically on Monday by an unlikely player: the Wuhan mayor, Zhou Xianwang.
In a remarkable interview with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, Zhou acknowledged that his city did not release “timely and satisfactory” information at the start of the epidemic, and he appeared to blame higher-ups in his chain of command.
“I hope everyone can understand that this is an infectious disease, and infectious diseases must be disclosed according to law,” he said. “We can only disclose information after we receive authorization.”
In the United States, health officials confirmed five cases of the pneumonia-like illness, while infections also have been confirmed in France, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan and Canada. We’re mapping the spread here.
President Donald Trump tweeted Monday that the United States is “in very close communication with China concerning the virus.”
“Very few cases reported in USA, but strongly on watch,” he wrote. “We have offered China and President Xi any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary!”
The tweet was his second mention of the virus on social media in recent days. On Friday, he praised China’s response to the outbreak, thanking President Xi Jinping and saying Chinese officials have “been working very hard” to contain the virus and that the United States “greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”
“It will all work out well,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, global markets took a sharp downturn as investors grew increasingly anxious about the swift spread of the virus beyond China.
The Dow plunged 450 points, or about 1.5%. Standard & Poor’s 500 and Nasdaq futures were also down significantly, 1.5% and 2%, respectively.
“Stock markets are selling off this morning on fears that the coronavirus might be harder to contain than previous viral outbreaks,” said Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research. “If the current outbreak turns into a pandemic that significantly disrupts global commerce, the impact would be bad news for the global economy and corporate earnings.”
In Canada, public health officials said Monday that the wife of the man who was declared the country’s first “presumptive positive” case of the coronavirus has also tested positive for the virus at Ontario’s public health laboratory.
The woman has been in “self-isolation,” David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said in a statement. He added that the risk to Ontarians of contracting the virus remains low.
The husband and wife returned to Toronto from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, via Guangzhou on a China Southern Airlines flight that arrived on Jan. 22, authorities said. He was admitted the next day to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, where he is now in isolation and in stable condition.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical officer, said the man had “mild symptoms” of the virus on the plane, although he was not flagged to public health officials upon his arrival. Authorities are contacting passengers who sat within two meters of him and any flight attendants who might have assisted him.
Both cases are considered “presumptive positive” because officials are awaiting confirmation from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.