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Wuhan virus: Death toll hits 26, 13 cities locked down

16:30 | 24/01/2020

China is swiftly building a hospital dedicated to treating patients infected with a new virus that has killed 26 people, sickened 830 people and prompted unprecedented lockdowns of 13 cities home to millions of people during the country's Lunar New Year.

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People line up outside a drugstore to buy masks in Shanghai, China, on Jan 21, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song)

On the eve of the Lunar New Year (Jan 24), transportation was shut down Friday in 13 cities with a total of about 41 million people. The cities are Wuhan, where the illness has been concentrated, and nine of its neighbors in central China's Hubei province.

The Wuhan government said Friday it was building a designated hospital with space for 1,000 beds in the style of a facility that Beijing constructed during the SARS epidemic. The hospital will be erected on a 25,000 square-meter lot and is slated for completion Feb 3, municipal authorities said.

Normally bustling streets, malls and other public spaces were eerily quiet in Wuhan on the second day of its lockdown. Masks were mandatory in public, and images from the city showed empty shelves as people stocked up for what could be an extended isolation. Train stations, the airport and subways were closed; police checked incoming vehicles but did not entirely close off roads.

Hours later, neighbouring Huanggang, a city of about 7 million people, announced similar measures.

Authorities were taking precautions around the country. In the capital, Beijing, major public events were canceled indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of Lunar New Year celebrations. Two major tourist destinations, Beijing's Forbidden City and Shanghai Disneyland, announced they will close indefinitely on Saturday (Jan 25).

The number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus has risen to 830, the National Health Commission said. Twenty-six people have died, including the first two deaths outside Hubei.

The health commission in Hebei, a northern province bordering Beijing, said an 80-year-old man died there after returning from a two-month stay in Wuhan to see relatives. Heilongjiang province in the northeast confirmed a death there but did not give details.

Initial symptoms of the virus can mirror those of the cold and flu, including cough, fever, chest tightening and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.

The vast majority of cases have been in and around Wuhan, but people who visited or had personal connections to infected people were among the scattered cases counted beyond the mainland. South Korea and Japan both confirmed their second cases Friday and Singapore confirmed its third. Cases have been confirmed in Singapore, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and the United States.

Many countries are screening travelers from China and isolating anyone with symptoms.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday called the outbreak "an emergency in China" but stopped short of declaring the epidemic of international concern.

"The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history," said Gauden Galea, the WHO's representative in Beijing.

Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns of the cities will last.

The National Health Commission said the death toll was revised upward following eight new deaths on Thursday, and 259 new cases reported across the country.

Out of the total 830 confirmed cases, 177 were in serious condition, it added.

Thirty-four people have been "cured and discharged".

The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed about 800 people, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which is thought to have originated from camels.

The Wuhan outbreak is suspected to have begun from wild animals sold at a food market in the city. The market is closed for investigation.

Videos circulating online Friday showed overcrowded Wuhan hospitals where throngs of masked people lined up for checks. Some users on Weibo said their family members had sought diagnoses but were turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.

The designated hospital now being constructed will be modeled after the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in Beijing, Wuhan authorities said in a notice. The specialized hospital was built from scratch in 2003 in just six days and featured individual isolation units that looked like rows of tiny cabins.

There is no vaccine for the virus, which can spread through respiratory transmission./.