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Coronavirus

Beijing urges calm over mysterious virus ahead of Lunar New Year

Business continues normally, as other governments in Asia raise alerts

A health surveillance officer checks the temperatures of inbound passengers at Hong Kong International Airport on Jan. 4. Authorities have activated a "serious response" level as fears grow about a mysterious disease that may have been brought back by visitors to mainland China.   © AP

HONG KONG -- As Beijing rushes to identify the cause of a mysterious illness that has sickened dozens of people in central China, some people in the city of Wuhan, where the unknown form of pneumonia originated, and elsewhere in the country are going about business as usual.

At domestic train stations and airports, there so far appear to be no additional health inspection measures taking place ahead of Lunar New Year, the country's peak travel period, during which hundreds of millions of city workers return to their hometowns for family gatherings. Wuhan, with a population of roughly 11 million, is at the heart of China's high-speed railway network, serving as a transit hub for cross-province journeys.

"There is not much news coverage about it," said a 21-year-old university student in Wuhan who gave her surname as Chen. "My classmates and people around me rarely discuss it either," she said. "To be honest, I know very little about the disease."

Several sources who have traveled within China over the past week said they have not gone through any health screenings upon departure or arrival at airports and train stations.

"I think the situation is well-controlled as infected patients are already held in isolation," said Hua Yuan, a resident of Nanjing, about three hours by train from Wuhan.

No such pneumonia cases have been reported in other Chinese cities despite suspected cases in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and elsewhere in the region. Suspected cases outside of mainland China so far have tested negative or are awaiting results.

While further investigation is still underway, Chinese health authorities have ruled out the possibility of the flu-like virus being severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome or bird flu.

"It's likely to be a previously unknown virus," David Hui, a medical professor specializing in respiratory disease at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK on Monday.

News about the Wuhan pneumonia has dominated news media in Hong Kong and Singapore, where the general public is on high alert over the unknown viral disease. Both cities were hit hard by SARS in 2003, with 299 people in Hong Kong and 33 in Singapore dying of the highly contagious virus.

Hong Kong citizens, whose vivid memories of the SARS outbreak still remain after 17 years, are increasingly anxious following 30 suspected cases of patients developing symptoms of respiratory infections and fever after visiting Wuhan. As of Tuesday evening, 20 of them have tested negative, and 10 are awaiting results, according to Hong Kong's Hospital Authority.

Supplies of surgical masks are running low in the densely populated city, with some retailers raising prices up to tenfold on their limited stocks.

The Hong Kong government has activated its "serious response level" -- the second in a three-tier scale -- to address the situation. The largest pro-Beijing party in Hong Kong, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has appealed to China's top office in the city to issue daily updates about the virus in Wuhan.

Governments in Macao, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea have beefed up health inspections and temperature screenings at their borders and airports.

A health surveillance station at Hong Kong International Airport. Hong Kong citizens, whose memories of the SARS outbreak are still fresh, are increasingly anxious following 30 suspected cases of patients developing symptoms of respiratory infections and fever after visiting Wuhan.   © AP

However, the World Health Organization said in a statement on Sunday that it "advises against the application of travel or trade restrictions on China based on the current information available on this event," adding that it is "closely monitoring the situation."

In 2003, the WHO criticized China for hiding and underreporting SARS cases, resulting in the dismissal of the country's then-head of the Ministry of Health.

The local government in Wuhan has called for calm and is attempting to swiftly contain the online outflow of what it describes as false information.

On New Year's Day, Wuhan police said they have detained eight people for spreading false news about the case on the internet. Despite dispersed discussions on the popular microblogging site Weibo about the pneumonia cases, the hashtag "Wuhan SARS" has been censored from the platform.

"No creating rumors, no believing rumors, no spreading rumors," local authorities and state media posted on their Weibo pages after the arrests. "Rumor is a kind of virus that is worth more of our attention than real viruses sometimes," the state-run People's Daily wrote on its website last Friday.

The unidentified type of pneumonia found in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province, came to light on Dec. 30 after an emergency notice to city hospitals went viral on Chinese social media. The local government confirmed the next day that 27 people had been diagnosed with "viral pneumonia of unknown origin" and displayed respiratory infection symptoms such as fever and breathing difficulty.

The figure jumped to 59 within a week, with seven in critical condition, according to a statement issued by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on Sunday. It added that all patients and their close contacts, totaling 163 people, are currently kept in quarantine. In a separate statement last week, it said a seafood wholesale market, where most patients worked, has been closed for disinfection. Local media has reported that the market sold other wildlife, such as rabbits, snakes and pheasants.

China's National Health Commission says that no evidence of human-to-human transmission and no health care worker infections have been found based on preliminary findings.

Additional reporting by CK Tan in Shanghai, Kentaro Iwamoto in Singapore, Masayuki Yuda in Bangkok and Skylar Li in Hong Kong.

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