World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a media conference in Geneva, January 22 2020. Picture: PIERRE ALBOUY / AFP
World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a media conference in Geneva, January 22 2020. Picture: PIERRE ALBOUY / AFP

Beijing — China said it was halting flights and trains from Thursday out of Wuhan, the city of 11-million people at the centre of a deadly SARS-like virus outbreak, as the UN extended emergency talks on the disease.

The central city’s special command centre against the virus also said that residents should not leave without a special reason and that the measures would be effective from Thursday, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

The move is meant to “resolutely contain the momentum of the epidemic spreading”, the centre was quoted as saying.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva he was postponing a decision on whether or not to declare a global health emergency — a rare instrument used only for the worst outbreaks — saying he needed “more information”.

“I have decided to ask the emergency committee to meet again tomorrow to continue their discussion,” he said, referring to a group of international experts who met for several hours at the WHO in Geneva on Wednesday.

Asked about the transport shutdown, he added: “By having a strong action not only will they control the outbreak in their country but they will also minimise the chances of this outbreak spreading  internationally.”

Hundreds of people have been infected with the virus in China and 17 have died since the first case was detected in Wuhan on December 31 and authorities have already urged visitors to steer clear of the city.

The coronavirus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002/2003.

With hundreds of millions of people travelling across China this week for the Lunar New Year holiday, the National Health Commission also announced measures to contain the disease — including sterilisation and ventilation at airports and bus stations, as well as inside aircraft  and trains.

The illness is mainly transmitted via the respiratory tract and there “is the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease”, health commission vice-minister Li Bin told a news conference in Beijing.

More than 500 have now been reported, with the majority in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province.

Major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing have also reported cases, as well as provinces in northeastern, central, and southern China.

The virus has also been detected in Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico, Russia and the US.

The Chinese government has classified the outbreak in the same category as the SARS epidemic, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the illness and the potential to implement quarantine measures.

But they still have not been able to confirm the exact source of the virus.

Countries have intensified efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen — known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Passengers are facing screening measures at five US airports and a host of transport hubs across Asia. SA’s port health authorities have stepped up surveillance of travellers arriving from countries affected by the new virus.

European airports from London to Moscow have also stepped up checks and Nigeria, which has many citizens working in China, said it would start checks at entry points.

The WHO has confirmed that the virus can be passed between people, at least those in close contact.

However, animals are suspected to be the primary source of the outbreak. A Wuhan market is believed to be the epicentre of the outbreak.

“We already know that the disease originated from a market which conducted illegal transaction of wild animals,” said Gao Fu, director of the Chinese centre for disease control and prevention.

He said it was clear “this virus is adapting and mutating”.

Hong Kong and British scientists have estimated that between 1,300 and 1,700 people in Wuhan may have been infected. Health authorities are urging people to wash their hands regularly, avoid crowded places, get plenty of fresh air and wear a mask if they have a cough.

Anyone with a cough or fever was urged to go to hospital.

In Wuhan, city authorities made it mandatory to wear a mask in public places on Wednesday, according to state-run People’s Daily.

In response to skyrocketing demand for masks — which were starting to sell out at pharmacies and on some popular websites — China’s industry and information technology ministry said it would “spare no effort in increasing supply”, state media reported.

In Wuhan, police were also conducting vehicle spot checks for live poultry or wild animals leaving and entering the city, state media said.

Officials also screened people on roads, the airport and the train station for fever.

The local government has cancelled major public activities, including Women’s Olympics football qualifiers scheduled for February 3-9 which have been moved to the eastern city of Nanjing.