HONG KONG—The Chinese government has imposed transit bans on at least eight cities to limit the spread of the contagious coronavirus that has killed at least 26 people as of Friday afternoon and surfaced as far away as the United States, where one case is confirmed and two are under observation. Yet the World Health Organization still has not declared a global health emergency.
In China, the youngest fatality is 36 years old, and patients are dying outside of the province where the virus first appeared. Enormous metropolitan centers like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou are on alert to try to limit the spread of the illness, but Chinese authorities so far have not been able to wall in the contagion that has erupted during the massive holiday travel season ahead of the Lunar New Year on Saturday.
Wuhan, where a now-shuttered meat and poultry market saw the origin of the outbreak, was the first city to undergo mass quarantine on Thursday; anyone who attempts to leave the city without permission from the government can face up to seven years in jail. Public transportation services were also halted in nearby Huanggang, Ezhou, Xiantao, Zhijian, Chibi, Jingmen, and Qianjiang. In all, more than 26 million people are in the quarantine zone.
People who managed to leave Wuhan before the lockdown told The Daily Beast that the lack of reliable information from state-run news sources compounded the chaos that was felt in the city this week. “Healthy adults seem to recover just fine,” one man said. “But we didn’t know about the scale [of infection] or what to be cautious about.”
After the Wuhan mayor came under fire for mismanaging matters during the outbreak’s onset, city-level officials in other parts of the country aren’t taking any chances. In Guangzhou, a major city in southern China, officials are actively locating travelers who entered the city after leaving Wuhan, even requiring those who display no symptoms to undergo self-quarantine for two weeks—the maximum incubation period for other deadly coronaviruses, known as SARS and MERS, that together infected many thousands and killed more than a thousand during epidemics in previous years.
The World Health Organization has been monitoring the spread of the virus. But after two days of deliberation, the WHO said it is not time to declare an international health emergency, even though outside of China there are confirmed infections in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore, as well as in the United States.
Elsewhere, suspected infections have appeared in the Philippines, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia, and Italy. Officials in the Philippines are in the process of repatriating 135 Chinese nationals who flew into the country from Wuhan earlier in the week.
At a press conference held in Geneva on Thursday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom said, “Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one. … It is likely that we will see more cases in other parts of China and other countries.”
Declaring a global health emergency would be a blow to the international legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, whose officials in Wuhan initially downplayed the severity of the contagion’s spread only for higher authorities to later institute a quarantine that is impacting tens of millions of people.
A WHO declaration would demand a “coordinated international response” to combat the spread of a disease that threatens the well-being of large populations. It also means there are “implications for public health beyond the affected state’s national border,” and countries around the world have an obligation to respond as quickly as possible.
We now know that the coronavirus can be transmitted from human hosts to other humans and that infection can lead to complications that result in death. We also know that about one-quarter of the people who have been infected develop severe symptoms. But scientists are still trying to identify the virus' other key characteristics. For now, it is unclear just how infectious the virus is, or, critically, at what stage of infection a person begins to spread it to new potential hosts.
Airports around the world are screening arriving passengers by checking their body temperatures, but that measure may not be an effective way of isolating potential coronavirus carriers if they are not exhibiting symptoms.
China’s National Health Commission released some details about the first 17 people who died after falling sick, and some of them did not run fevers. The virus’ incubation period—possibly between one and two weeks—also means it can lie dormant in human bodies as they travel across borders or continents.
Hospitals in some parts of China—particularly in Hubei, the province where cities are under mass quarantine—are slammed with people seeking medical tests or assistance. These facilities are short-staffed, and supplies are far from enough to handle the volume.
The fear is that cramped hospitals, like those in Wuhan and surrounding areas where hundreds pack into a waiting room for hours on end to seek tests or medical assistance, can lead to a spike in infections, possibly even cultivating a “super-spreader”—an individual who is extremely contagious and infects a disproportionate number of people, particularly in densely populated areas.
In the United States, officials have identified suspected infections in California and Texas on top of the country’s first confirmed case in Washington state. The traveler who arrived at Los Angeles International Airport departed Mexico City on an American Airlines flight and was taken to a local hospital while experiencing flu-like symptoms. In Brazos County, Texas, a student of Texas A&M University has been isolated for precautionary testing.
The Chinese central government said it will build a new hospital in six days specifically to treat coronavirus patients. It will be modeled after a facility constructed in Beijing in 2003 to handle the SARS epidemic. For now, hospitals in Wuhan are asking for donations of medical supplies—surgical masks, protective goggles, and more. Doctors and nurses are stretched thin, and they’re waiting for any assistance that can be had.