The number of confirmed cases of a newly emerging coronavirus that causes pneumonia continued to rise in China on Friday, as the nation marked the end of the Year of the Pig.
The novel coronavirus (nCoV) had killed 26 people and infected more than 800 around the world, with the majority of those cases found in the central province of Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, China's National Health Commission said.
An estimated 18 million people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei cities were under a travel ban amid fears that hospitals were running out of beds and supplies to test and treat an overwhelming number of patients.
Liu Shui, a former journalist with the Southern group of newspapers in Guangzhou, said there is a shortage of supplies in Wuhan, in spite of assurances from the Hubei provincial authorities that they had sufficient resources to handle the lockdown period.
"There will definitely be supply [issues]," said Liu, who covered the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that left hundreds dead in 2002-2003. "Generally speaking, they will lose control, cover things up, and seek to maintain stability."
"That whole pattern isn't going to have changed [since SARS]. Why aren't they doing enough? Because they are unprepared and they don't have enough resources."
He cited the case of a relative of documentary film-maker Ai Xiaoming, who was refused a bed in a hospital after testing positive for nCoV.
"In the end they isolated themselves at home ... there was a doctor who posted saying they were under too much pressure a few days ago, constantly on duty and fearing infection," Liu said. "They can't cope."
"There are no medical supplies," he said. "That sort of thing should be coordinated by Beijing, but in reality all they do is make public health announcements to the rank and file, who don't have any of this stuff [to implement them]."
Difficult to predict
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday that while the coronavirus outbreak is definitely an emergency for China, it doesn't yet qualify as a global health emergency.
Chinese health experts have warned that the virus, which was initially traced to a wild animal market in Wuhan, is transmitted by breathing, and is likely mutating, making it hard to predict how the epidemic will develop.
Authorities in Wuhan are rushing to build a new, 1,000-bed hospital in just 10 days to treat the huge overflow of patients, in a bid to make the facility available by Feb. 3, according to a report by state broadcaster CCTV.
State news agency Xinhua said the new facility is aimed at "alleviating the shortage of medical treatment resources and improving the ability to care for patients."
All able-bodied workers left in the city over Lunar New Year were being pressed into service to work round the clock on the Xiaotangshan Hospital, which will likely be constructed of prefabricated units, Agence France-Presse reported.
Some 40 military doctors were drafted in to help with intensive care at the Wuhan Pulmonary Hospital, CCTV said, while 405 medical workers were being sent to Wuhan from Shanghai, starting Friday, Xinhua reported.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has called on people to avoid crowded places, while a large number of popular tourist attractions -- usually thronging with revellers during the Spring Festival holiday -- have been shut down due to public health concerns.
'Working as one'
Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told people to stay home over the holiday period, which is normally a time for feasting, shopping, and visiting crowded places like temples and beauty spots.
"If we all work as one, we can contain the virus in Wuhan and add no more cases exported from Wuhan, so as to stem the virus nationwide," Gao told CCTV.
In Hong Kong, health authorities confirmed late on Friday that a third person had tested positive for the new coronavirus originating in Wuhan, taking the total to five.
Earlier, police were called to the Prince of Wales Hospital in Shatin to bring a couple of people who lately returned from Wuhan back into isolation after they made a run for it, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
At the West Kowloon High Speed Rail Terminus, where trains arrive from mainland China, the majority of passengers and staff were wearing surgical masks, while cleaning staff sprayed strong-smelling disinfectant around the station.
Ticket sales to Wuhan have been suspended, and hundreds of people were lining up to get refunds on tickets to mainland Chinese cities, rather than risk infection.
While 549 of the confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported in Hubei province, 53 have been confirmed in Guangdong, just across the border from Hong Kong, with 43 in Zhejiang, 27 in Chongqing, and 26 in the capital, Beijing, according to a map set up by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S.
One of the people in the line, a woman who gave the surname Ng, said she wants to be on the safe side.
"I'm a bit scared, because I saw they have shut down eight mainland Chinese cities this morning, and the number of confirmed cases has increased sharply," Ng said.
"I was a bit worried, so I have come to get a refund on my ticket," she said.
An editorial in The Lancet medical journal warned that the nCoV virus has a 3-6 day incubation period with "insidious onset," meaning that someone can carry the virus without realising they have it, potentially infecting more people before they develop symptoms.
"Because asymptomatic infection appears possible, controlling the epidemic will also rely on isolating patients, tracing and quarantining contacts as early as possible, educating the public on both food and personal hygiene, and ensuring health care workers comply with infection control," Kwok-Yung Yuen from the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital said in a statement cited by the journal.
"The picture these two manuscripts paint is of a disease with a 3–6 day incubation period and insidious onset with fever, cough, and myalgia—with or without diarrhea or shortness of breath, or both," The Lancet said in an editorial on Jan.
"Some patients have mild disease, but older patients (aged >60 years) progress to severe acute respiratory distress syndrome, and a need for intubation and intensive care," it said, adding that "some infections terminate in death, but a case-fatality rate cannot be determined."
Thailand has confirmed four cases, with Japan, Macau and Vietnam reporting two each, while single cases have been confirmed in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, and two in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins interactive map.
Reported by Wong Siu-san, Sing Man, Man Hoi-tsan, Lu Xi and Cai Ling for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.