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China seals off more cities as virus reaches Singapore and Vietnam

With death toll at 25, Beijing shuts Forbidden City and Macao weighs casino closures

Travelers arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. With the annual Lunar New Year travel season underway, containing the coronavirus infection will be a challenge for health officials.   © Reuters

BEIJING/NEW YORK -- Chinese officials scrambling to contain the coronavirus outbreak on Friday raised the death toll to 25, while new countries including Singapore and Vietnam were dealing with their first confirmed cases.

China's National Health Commission said it had confirmed 830 cases of the virus, as of Thursday. The authorities were attempting to contain the infection by quarantining more areas around the outbreak's epicenter, the city of Wuhan.

In Singapore on Thursday, the Ministry of Health reported its first case of the respiratory virus in a 66-year-old Chinese man from Wuhan who had arrived with family Monday. The patient was hospitalized after staying at the Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa on the island of Sentosa. He is in stable condition in an isolation room at Singapore General Hospital, the ministry said.

Two other Chinese visitors with possible infections have also been isolated, according to the ministry.

Vietnamese health officials said two Chinese nationals in the country, a 66-year-old man and his son, were found to have contracted the virus. Local media reported that the father arrived from Wuhan on Jan. 13 and met with his son in Nha Trang. The two traveled to locations including Ho Chi Minh City before being hospitalized with virus symptoms on Wednesday.

And in the U.S., a sick passenger who arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico City late on Wednesday was taken to a hospital due to concern over the coronavirus.

China's numbers include two confirmed cases each in Macao and Hong Kong. Cases have also been confirmed in the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

Wuhan -- where the outbreak seems to have originated -- shut down air, train and bus travel into and out of the city Thursday morning, along with public transportation including subways, buses and ferries. Outbound highways have been closed off as well.

The neighboring city of Ezhou closed train stations on Thursday, and nearby Huanggang halted buses and outbound trains on Friday. Among smaller cities, Chibi and Zhijiang have suspended intercity transport. Xiantao has shut down transit within the city. At least three others in the province have mandated temperature checks at transit hubs and city entry points.

The nine cities are home to roughly 25 million residents, reflecting the massive scale of the quarantines.

The Forbidden City in Beijing is closing to visitors from Saturday. Macao is canceling Lunar New Year parades, and Hong Kong media reports indicate that casinos could be closed if the outbreak worsens. Tourists will be barred from Peking University and Tsinghua University starting Friday.

Visitors take selfies during last year's Chinese Lunar New Year in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The major tourist attraction will be closed to visitors from Jan. 25 as Beijing tries to contain the coronavirus outbreaks in the country.   © Reuters

China's state broadcaster has urged people to cancel family gatherings just days before the new year begins Saturday.

How effective these measures will be remains unclear. By some estimates, more than 3 million people in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, have already left for holiday travel.

With the official Lunar New Year break beginning Friday, fears are growing that a sharp increase in overseas travel will accelerate the spread of the virus.

The number of people infected seems to be rising much faster than during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002 and 2003, which had about 300 reported cases in Guangdong Province in its first three months. Reports suggest the emergence of at least one highly contagious "superspreader" who infected 14 health care workers in Wuhan.

Some warn of the risk of an epidemic on a par with SARS, which sickened over 8,000 people in 32 countries and regions -- with superspreaders playing a major role -- and lasted seven and a half months.

The new virus has so far proved less deadly than other serious coronavirus outbreaks, with a mortality rate of about 3% against nearly 10% for SARS and more than 30% for Middle East respiratory syndrome.

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