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Coronavirus latest: China coronavirus claims first doctor’s life, as disease spreads around globe

●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.

●Authorities around China, including in the capital, Beijing, have canceled the temple fairs and festivals that accompany the Spring Festival to avoid having large public gatherings where the airborne virus could spread.

TOKYO — China kicked off its traditional New Year celebrations on Saturday by confronting a rising tide of local and global concern over the deadly coronavirus.

Fifteen new deaths were reported, tens of millions of people banned from traveling, cities and provinces have unleashed emergency powers and Hong Kong has announced that its schools would be closed for the next three weeks.

The death toll in mainland China rose to 42 and the disease continued to spread around Asia and the world. At a time when people traditionally travel home to spend time with their families, the government has put more than 48 million people on lockdown, with a travel ban covering 15 cities in the central Hubei province.

In Wuhan, the source and center of the outbreak, the streets were decorated with red lanterns but largely deserted on New Year’s Eve — usually a night for banquets, dragon dances and fireworks, state broadcaster CCTV reported. The city banned private vehicles from entering the city center beginning at midnight on Saturday night, and assigned 6,000 taxis to provide free rides.

The few people who ventured out wore face masks and consciously stayed away from each other.

Across the country, Chinese authorities have canceled the temple fairs and festivals that normally accompany the nation’s biggest holiday, while the Forbidden City in Beijing, the most popular sections of the Great Wall and Shanghai Disneyland are all closed to visitors.

Twenty-four provinces and municipalities around mainland China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Xinjiang, with a combined population of 1.2 billion people, have announced the highest level of emergency response to try to control the spread of the virus.

The Level One protocol allows local governments to mobilize personnel, materials and means of transportation for the emergency response, temporarily requisition housing, enforce regional blockades, suspend mass activities, close businesses, factories and schools, quarantine patients, fix prices and punish rumormongers, speculators and manufacturers of fake products.

Starbucks announced the temporarily closure of its cafes around Wuhan, “in order to protect the health and safety of our customers, partners and their families,” while McDonalds closed five restaurants around Hubei.

In Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, just back from the World Economic Forum in Davos, announced a series of measures to control the spread of the virus, as the number of confirmed cases in the territory rose to five.

Her government raised its response level to “emergency,” the highest possible level, and said it would be indefinitely canceling all rail and air links to Wuhan.

Businesses, she warned, would likely be facing “an even more difficult environment,” with the outbreak of the disease coming after eight months of unrest and anti-government protests.

“On this occasion, we need to stand united, so we can prevent and control the disease,” Lam said.

Across Hong Kong, where streets were quiet because of the holiday, almost everyone wore surgical masks. Some gyms have mandated temperature checks, and subway stations have erected signs advising passengers on public hygiene.

In 2003, Hong Kong was one of the worst affected regions by the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed 286 people including eight medical staff. Some medical experts and pro-democracy lawmakers have been urging the government to act more quickly and had been calling for transport links to Wuhan to be cut for over a week.

Yuen Kwok-yung at the University of Hong Kong, a microbiologist who played a key role in discovering SARS, warned Saturday that Hong Kong was facing its “last window of opportunity” to contain the spread of the disease, and urged everyone to wear surgical masks.

But the shutdowns and lockdowns are unlikely to prevent the disease continuing to spread around China and the world, experts said.

China has reported 1,287 confirmed cases of the virus, with the youngest a two-year-old girl in Guangxi province, and another 8,420 people under observation. But experts say the actual number of infections is likely to be much higher.

Three cases have now been confirmed in France, two in the United States and one in Australia, all in patients who had recently traveled to China. There have also been cases in Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Among the dead on Saturday was 62-year-old doctor Liang Wudong in Wuhan. Chinese state media had initially reported that Liang had been working “on the front line” of the battle against the disease, but Hubei Daily later deleted that reference without explanation.

Later reports noted only that he had retired as director of the otolaryngology department at Hubei Hospital of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine Hospital last March.

He was admitted to the hospital as a patient on Jan. 16 and then transferred to a major quarantine facility two days later, before dying at 7 a.m. on Saturday. The official Beijing Daily said he had a history of atrial fibrillation, a type of abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia.

Government coverups have consistently aggravated public health crises in China in the past, especially during the SARS outbreak, and China has been praised for greater transparency this time around, as well as for reacting much more quickly in detecting the virus and reacting to it.

But evidence continues to mount that the one-party system and its knee-jerk reaction to censor any sensitive or damaging information is hampering the battle against the disease.

Taizhou People’s Hospital in Jiangsu province posted an obituary on its official WeChat account for the head of its infectious disease unit, Jiang Jijun, saying he had died of a sudden heart attack Thursday when he was walking to the fever outpatient department after seeing patients at the inpatient wards.

The post said Jiang had been “busy on the battlefield of the prevention and control of the new coronavirus.” Although the hospital is the city’s designated center to receive coronavirus cases, the city had puzzlingly still not reported a single confirmed or suspected case on Friday.

China’s State Council announced on Friday that it will be collecting information on local government departments that have failed or shirked responsibility in their response to the outbreak, including through “delays, concealment and underreporting of the epidemic.”

Wuhan’s municipal health commission said earlier this week that 15 medical workers in the city had been infected with coronavirus, and another one was suspected of being infected, although the Caixin news magazine cited doctors as saying the number of infected health workers was higher.

Whatever the true number, it is a concern, experts say.

“Health worker infections are an ominous finding in any emerging infection,” David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine wrote in a comment in the Lancet medical journal, noting that front line health workers became infected early in the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2002-2003, which “amplified transmission to patients in hospitals where outbreaks were occurring.”

Wuhan is racing against time to build two pop-up hospitals to house more than 2,000 infected patients on the city’s outskirts.

The first, named Huo Shen Shan (“Fire God Hill”), will cover an area of 20,000 square meters, roughly the size of seven soccer fields, is supposed to treat 1,000 patients. It is scheduled to be finished on Feb. 1 and come into use on Feb. 3, the city’s Urban Construction Bureau told local newspapers.

A second facility, called Lei Shen Shan (“Thunder God Hill”), will house another 1,300 beds and be completed in half a month, the People’s Daily reported.

Chinese news magazine Caixin showed images of medical staff in Wuhan Union Hospital working in full protective suits, and said they were working around the clock on New Year’s Eve on Friday.

“Everyone else in China is having dinner and watching the Spring Festival TV gala, not knowing that my co-workers have been working another eight hours, without eating, drinking, or going to the bathroom,” a Wuhan Union Hospital doctor who identifies himself as “Mr. Do” posted on the weibo social media service on Friday evening, where he has 180,000 followers.

“Some have been working in adult diapers, because we know that the protective suit we are wearing could be the last one we have, and we can’t afford to waste anything.”

Mr. Do was not able to watch, but the estimated 1.1 billion people who viewed CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala on Friday evening saw a seven-minute tribute to the medical workers fighting the outbreak. CCTV said it was the first time they had included an “unrehearsed” segment in the live show, which lasts for more than four hours until after midnight.

“Please believe in China, that everything is going to get better,” one of the six news anchors said. “With the most transparent public information, the most dedicated protection and preparations, the most scientific prevention and treatment, and the most powerful and reasonable guarantee, we have confidence to advance on the battlefield against the epidemic, and we will definitely win.”

Research conducted by Chinese doctors published in the Lancet suggested that some people may be carrying the disease without knowing it, a conclusion that could make it even more difficult to contain.

The study looked at six members of a family who had traveled to Wuhan and returned home to Shenzhen: all four adults became infected with the disease, with fever, upper or lower respiratory tract symptoms, and/or diarrhea, between three and six days after exposure.

The youngest child, who had followed his parents’ instructions and worn a surgical mask, did not, but a 10-year-old who was “noncompliant to parental guidance” was found to have contracted the disease and had “lung opacities” on a CT scan but no outward symptoms. The children’s paternal grandmother, who had not traveled to Wuhan, later caught the virus in Shenzhen from their father.

The study confirmed the disease was a new form of coronavirus, which is closest to the SARS-related coronaviruses found in Chinese horseshoe bats. Like the SARS epidemic, which was traced to masked palm civets sold in a wildlife market, the study said the disease was connected to a wet market where game animals and meat were sold.

Wildlife activists and medical experts have long argued that China needs to shut down the trade in endangered and wild animals for game meat, as they represent a potential source of disease.

Microbiologist Yuen, one of the study’s authors, said the wild animal or game meat trade had obviously been rekindled since 2003, something he called “understandable” since changing a country’s food culture is always difficult. But he called for China to regulate its markets better.

“The lesson of this major epidemic is that the life, ecosystem and habitat of wild life must be respected,” he said in an email. “If we infringe into their habitats to the extent of farming and trading them, the viruses of different wild life can come together with genetic exchanges which can lead to jumping from animal into human and spread from human to human.”

“The price of such epidemic is staggering and this should not be allowed to happen again.”

In an accompanying comment in the Lancet, experts called the virus “of global health concern,” adding “we need to be wary of the current outbreak turning into a sustained epidemic or even a pandemic.”

On Wednesday, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said children and young people are “not susceptible” to the new coronavirus, with most confirmed cases in the elderly or people with chronic health issues or damaged immune systems.

But the infections of a 2-year-old girl in Guangxi, an 18-year-old in Beijing, and Thursday’s death of a 36-year-old man in Wuhan have contradicted Gao’s claim and raised concerns about the potential impact of the virus. The man in Wuhan had no chronic diseases or other existing health conditions, and had been treated with anti-viral medication and antibiotics since he was admitted to a hospital on Jan. 9.

Research jointly undertaken by Lancaster University, the University of Florida and the University of Glasgow found the number of cases appear to be growing much more rapidly than in the SARS or MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreaks, “suggesting that containment or control of this pathogen may be substantially more difficult.”

The research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, estimated that only one-in-20 of infections in Wuhan have so far been identified and argued that travel restrictions from and to the city are unlikely to be effective in halting transmission across China. The report predicted that the actual number of infected people could rise from around 11,000 people on Jan. 21 to 200,000 by Feb. 4.

In the United States, at least 50 people are under observation for the illness in 22 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after two patients, a man in his 30s from Snohomish County, Wash., and a woman who lives in Chicago, were both confirmed as infected, on Tuesday and Friday respectively. Authorities are monitoring 50 of the man’s contacts for signs of infection.

Although the outbreak is a “very serious public-health threat, the immediate risk to the U.S. public is low at this time,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters Friday.

Lyric Li in Beijing and Wang Yuan in Tianjin contributed to this report.

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