China has extended a public transport shutdown to 12 cities, affecting more than 36m people as authorities race to halt the spread of a deadly virus that has alarmed governments around the world.
As of mid-afternoon on Friday, 26 people had died and 881 had confirmed infections that started in the central city of Wuhan, according to Chinese state television. There were another 1,073 suspected cases of the Sars-like coronavirus in 20 provinces.
The outbreak prompted S&P Global Ratings, the credit rating agency, to warn that if the situation worsened considerably the disease could knock 1.2 percentage points off China’s economic growth this year. The economy expanded at 6.1 per cent in 2019, the slowest pace in 29 years.
Authorities in Wuhan and 11 nearby cities in Hubei Province have closed train and bus connections and other public transport. There are also roadblocks preventing most private cars from leaving Wuhan and restrictions are set to be extended to two more cities on Friday evening. That would bring the number of people affected to more than 43m, almost as large as the population of Argentina.
Some of the cities are closing markets, halting operations of online ride-hailing services, prohibiting taxis from leaving and closing roads in and out of the urban centres. In many cases, government officials, bureaucrats, military personnel and employees of state-owned enterprises have also been prevented from leaving.
But experts are divided on whether the steps will slow the spread of the virus, with Chinese poised to make hundreds of millions of trips over the lunar new year holiday period. Many had already travelled home to celebrate the holiday with family before the measures were implemented.
“Isolating the cities where the virus has circulated already is a very significant action to take. The first step is containment,” said Nischay Mishra, a virologist and infectious disease expert at Columbia University, who is developing tests to identify the virus. “This will definitely help but not stop the spread completely.”
Dr Mishra said he expected infections to peak in the next two to three weeks as the full extent of its spread via travel through the new year period became clearer.
Ian Mackay, a virologist at Queensland University in Australia, said it was possible the travel restrictions would simply be a “Band-Aid” solution.
“It’s never been done before, there’s no evidence this will do anything by shutting these people in. There’s still the virus there,” he said.
“Lots and lots of people had already left Wuhan before they installed these quarantine conditions . . . some of which will be positive, will incubate and spread to their families. It’s not going to shut it down.”
Beijing is under pressure to prevent a repeat of the Sars crisis, when nearly 800 people died. While the Sars virus was thought to have emerged in late 2002 it was only reported officially in February 2003.
Many Chinese cities have cancelled large public events including lunar new year celebrations. Beijing’s Forbidden City, one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, said it would close on Saturday until further notice. Shanghai’s Disney resort announced it was close from tomorrow, according to Reuters.
The World Health Organization on Thursday held back from declaring a global emergency over the outbreak. Didier Houssin, chair of the WHO emergency committee, said the panel was “split almost 50:50”.
In Wuhan, the city of 11m where the outbreak began, hospitals continued to struggle with shortages of medical supplies and overcrowding. Authorities said they planned to build a new medical centre within six days to serve as the primary treatment point for those infected.
At a Carrefour supermarket in central Wuhan, several customers said they were stocking up.
“We are planning to stay inside as much as possible for the next two weeks, so we are buying food for that period,” said one shopper in his late 30s. “We will keep our daughter home and not let her play with other children at least until the number of infections stops rising.”
Shaun Roache, Asia-Pacific chief economist at S&P Global Ratings, said the outbreak was hitting China at a time of peak consumption on travel, entertainment and gifts.
Consumption contributed about 3.5 percentage points to the overall GDP growth rate of 6.1 per cent last year, he said.
“A back of the envelope calculation suggests that if spending on such services fell by 10 per cent, overall GDP growth would fall by about 1.2 percentage points,” Mr Roache wrote in a research note.
But some experts said the outbreak would probably be less catastrophic compared with Sars in 2003. The fatality rate for Sars was almost 10 per cent of infected patients while so far the fatality rate of this outbreak was between 3 to 4 per cent, said Dr Mishra.
Markets in Asia were muted on Friday, with Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng equities index up 0.15 per cent and Tokyo’s Topix flat. Bourses in mainland China were shut for the lunar new year holiday.
Additional reporting by Hudson Lockett and Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong