Coronavirus ability to spread increasing, China’s health minister says

China’s health minister has indicated the ability of a new strain of coronavirus to spread in his country is getting stronger and the number of infections could continue to rise.

Ma Xiaowei spoke Sunday after China released new figures showing the death toll from the virus, first reported in the city of Wuhan at the end of December, has risen to 56. Some 1,975 people in China had been infected with the virus, with more than 2,000 cases globally.

“The transmissibility shows signs of increasing and the ‘walking source of infection’ [where patients have few signs of disease] has made it difficult to control and prevent the disease.

“For this new coronavirus we have not identified the source of the infection and we are not clear about the risk of its mutation and how it spreads. Since this is a new coronavirus there might be some changes in the coming days and weeks, and the danger it poses to people of different ages is also changing,” he said.

The minister declined to estimate how long it would take to bring the situation under control, but said travel restrictions and other strict measures should bring results “at the lowest cost and fastest speed.”

Buses halted

China’s northern Hebei province, the region surrounding Beijing, will suspend the operation of inter-province and inter-city buses in order to curb the outbreak, state media CCTV reported on Sunday. Hainan, an island in the south, will also suspend inter-province travel.

Workers make protective masks at a factory in Handan, Hebei province. (China Daily via Reuters)

In announcing a higher death toll, the Chinese government also reported six cases in Hong Kong and two in Macao. Small numbers of cases have been found in Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, France and Australia.

In Canada, health officials in Ontario on Saturday confirmed its first “presumptive” case of coronavirus, a man in his 50s who was in Wuhan before flying to Toronto on Jan. 22. 

Hong Kong to ban entry of people from Hubei

Hong Kong’s government said on Sunday it will ban residents of Hubei, or people who have visited the province in the past 14 days from entering Hong Kong, starting Monday. The rule does not apply to Hong Kong residents, it added in a statement, without giving an end date to the ban.

The U.S. Consulate in Wuhan will evacuate its personnel and some private citizens aboard a charter flight on Tuesday. A notice from the embassy in Beijing on Sunday said there would be limited capacity to transport U.S. citizens on the flight that will proceed directly to San Francisco.

The mayor of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in Hubei, said he expected another 1,000 new patients in the city, which is stepping up construction of two special hospitals.

Canadian will be on U.S. flight

CBC News has learned that one Canadian will be on board the flight chartered by Washington to fly diplomats and Americans out of Wuhan. Sources say 67 Canadians are registered as being in Hubei province.

The French Consulate also was considering an evacuation of its nationals from the city. It said it’s working on arranging a bus to help French citizens leave Wuhan.

China’s National Health Commission said anyone travelling from Wuhan is now required to register with community health stations and quarantine themselves at home for 14 days — the virus’ maximum incubation period.

WATCH | Toronto health officials say they are prepared for the virus:

Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa says a team is tracking down those who might have been in contact with the man, whose family members are already in self-isolation. 0:53

In the heart of the outbreak where 11 million residents are already on lockdown, Wuhan banned most vehicle use, including private cars, in downtown areas starting Sunday. The city will assign 6,000 taxis to neighbourhoods to help people get around if they need to.

China cut off trains, planes and other links to the city Jan’ 22, and has steadily expanded the lockdown to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million — greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.

WATCH | Are people on the same flight at risk?

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Wuhan is building two makeshift hospitals with about 1,000 beds each to handle the growing number of patients. The city has said the first is expected to be completed Feb. 3.

Medical supplies rushed to Wuhan

Medical workers in Wuhan have been among those infected and local media reported a doctor died on Saturday morning. The 62-year-old physician was hospitalized on Jan. 18 and died a week later.

Xinhua also said medical supplies are being rushed to the city, including 14,000 protective suits, 110,000 pairs of gloves and masks and goggles.

A woman wearing a face mask walks out of a supermarket in Beijing on Sunday. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.

First detected last month, the virus is believed to have originated in a type of wild animal sold at a Wuhan market to be consumed as food.

Ban on selling wild animals

Chinese authorities announced a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals Sunday, saying they will “severely investigate and punish” violators. They also called on the public to refrain from eating wild animal meat.

No wildlife can be transported or sold in any markets or online, according to text of the announcement in state media.

The ban will continue until “the epidemic situation is lifted nationwide” in order to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus and block potential sources of infection and transmission, state media reported.

The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse but could reflect better monitoring and reporting of the virus. Those killed by the virus have mostly been middle-aged or elderly people, sometimes suffering from other conditions that weaken their ability to fight back.

It is not clear how lethal the new coronavirus is or even whether it is as dangerous as the ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S. alone.

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