Jan. 26, 2020 at 9:46 a.m. GMT+1
More than 50 million people were ordered on lockdown in central China with a travel ban covering 16 cities in the central Hubei province, where the virus was first encountered. Here’s what we know:
●Health Minister Ma Xiaowei said Sunday that the transmissibility of the virus is increasing, while the vice minister of industry, Wang Jiangping, said the country could not produce enough medical supplies to address demand.
●The sale of wild animals has been banned for the duration of the crisis. A wild animal market in Wuhan is widely seen as the epicenter of the current outbreak.
●Travel bans were extended in central China to put tens of millions of people effectively on local lockdowns. In Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, workers are racing to build at least three pop up 1,000-bed hospitals. The situation is especially dire in the countryside where the medial infrastructure is poor.
●Infections have been confirmed in France, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia and the United States. We’re mapping the spread here.
BEIJING — Chinese health authorities are deploying more than a thousand doctors and military personnel to the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak as the number of infections skyrocket and desperation grips the quarantined province of Hubei, where more than 50 million people are stranded with dwindling food and medical supplies.
China’s national health commission said early Sunday that the number of confirmed infections had soared 50 percent over the prior 24 hours to 1,975 people across 30 provinces. Fifty-six deaths have been reported, including in major metropolitan areas such as Shanghai. Several doctors in Beijing, the capital, also reported being infected.
“Transmissibility is increasing,” Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei told reporters Sunday. “The outbreak has come to a severe and complicated situation.”
He added that there could “still be new developments” as the virus mutates. “We still don’t know the risks of transformation,” he said.
Scientists have already noticed that the virus is adapting to humans much faster than its predecessor, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, which killed more than 750 people in 2002-2003.
It took SARS three months to mutate into a form that spread easily between humans, but the related Wuhan coronavirus took only one month, George Fu, a top Chinese epidemiologist told reporters.
“Why is it transmitting so fast?” he said. “The two species are like the cartoon Tom and Jerry: viruses are continually adapting to humans, but human also adapt, and the virus’s ability to make people ill also goes down.”
At the heart of the outbreak, in central China’s Hubei province, a travel ban extended to a total of 16 cities and covered approximately 51 million people. Video distributed by state media showed local officials in adjacent regions taking extreme measures, including using excavators to destroy and block roads, to discourage residents from traveling to infected areas of Hubei to visit stranded relatives who were running low on supplies.
Authorities have also announced the banning of the sale of wild animals after evidence emerged that the disease was transmitted to humans through a market in the city of Wuhan that traded in game meat.
The spread of the virus — and travel bans extending to several major hubs around China — threatened to paralyze the country for an indefinite period, with uncertain implications around the world.
On Saturday — China’s New Year’s Day — numerous Chinese government agencies said they had summoned workers back to their posts as President Xi Jinping warned of a “grave” situation as the virus “accelerated its spread.”
Two teams of British epidemiologists released studies over the weekend estimating that each infected person was spreading the disease to two or three other people. A team from Lancaster University projected that infections in Wuhan could explode to 190,000 cases by as early as next week.
The Chinese central government said it is mustering manufacturers to send 100,000 hazardous materials suits and millions of face masks to Wuhan, where hospitals reported overfilled beds and doctors collapsing from exhaustion. Videos on social media from Wuhan hospitals showed patient queues stretching around the block and nurses surmising that the true number of cases — based on what they were witnessing — far exceeded what was being officially reported.
The vice minister of industry, Wang Jiangping, said Sunday the country was facing a significant shortage of medical supplies including protective suits for medical workers. Hubei Province alone required 100,000 suits a day but Chinese manufacturers could only produce 30,000 a day, he said. “There’s a prominent gap in supply and demand,” he said, adding that China was hoping to purchase supplies on the international market.
Authorities in Wuhan and another hard-hit Hubei city, Huanggang, have announced the construction of three pop-up hospitals with thousands of beds to be built within the next few days.
Days after ordering the departure of all non-emergency U.S. personnel, the U.S. Embassy said Sunday it would charter a single flight on Jan. 26 out of Wuhan for remaining consulate staff and American citizens.
Meanwhile, Chinese citizens stranded inside the vast quarantine zone, locked down by paramilitary police checkpoints for the fourth day, took to social media to describe a sense of surreal desperation during a week when families should otherwise be celebrating the new year with dumplings, fireworks and presents.
One Wuhan resident described sharing her dwindling groceries that she had purchased to last for three days with an elderly couple whose food supplies were down to nothing. She said she worried about her food lasting one more day and the population of stray animals abandoned throughout the city.
“I don’t know how to solve this food problem,” wrote the user “Guapidawushi. “Right now I really, really don’t know what to do. I’m completely helpless.”
Some users shared videos of once-buzzing streets in Wuhan’s historic, European-style riverside district lying empty. Others posted more lighthearted pictures of women playing Mah-jongg with masks and transparent grocery bags over their heads.
The situation appeared to be more dire in the vast Hubei countryside outside of Wuhan, where rural authorities were struggling to cope.
The Chinese magazine Caixin reported that some smaller village clinics were only rationed six masks, and large hospitals were within one or two days of running out of supplies. In Jingzhou city, a short distance up the Yangtze River from Wuhan, doctors told reporters they were wearing rain ponchos because they lacked protective suits.
Deng Anqing, a Beijing-based writer who was visiting family in rural Hubei for the New Year holiday, said the hidden crisis was in the countryside.
“The media is focused on Wuhan but we know absolutely nothing about the current situation in the countryside,” Deng wrote in a post. “Large numbers of workers are returning here from Wuhan, but the capabilities of village hospitals are awful. Villages don’t have masks, and it’s hard to convince the elderly to wear them.”
Simon Denyer in Tokyo and Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report