EMERGENCY: The construction site of a new hospital in Wuhan
The country’s death toll rose to 42 yesterday, while quarantine measures saw 56 million people in several cities put into lockdown.
Thirty-one people have been tested for the deadly coronavirus in the UK, but all of the results have come back negative.
About 2,000 people who have recently flown here from Wuhan, a city where the outbreak is believed to have started, were still being sought last night.
More than 1,400 people have been infected by the virus so far, mostly in China.
Among the fatalities confirmed yesterday morning was Liang Wudong, 62, a doctor who had been treating the infected.
Images emerged of other medics collapsing on wards at hospitals in crisis-hit Wuhan.
Cases of the “snake flu” have also been diagnosed in France, Australia, the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal and Macau.
In the US, officials are testing 63 people across 22 states. The US will evacuate 1,000 diplomats and citizens from Wuhan on a charter flight this afternoon, with Russia planning to do the same this week. China has also banned all group tours from tomorrow.
MEDICS IN MASKS: Staff at Wuhan Red Cross Hospital tend to long queues of patients
Dr Richard Hatchett, a leading expert on epidemics, last night said the spread of the virus and the deaths amounted to a “global emergency”.
He said: “In 20 years of working on epidemic preparedness I can’t say I’ve been more concerned than I am about the current virus.
“This is a virus which has a wide spectrum of illness, from very mild to very severe and even fatal.
“The problem is that people who have mild illness in the middle of cold and flu season may continue to move around and spread the infection to other people who may be more vulnerable to severe illness or death.”
President Xi called his senior officials to a meeting in Beijing yesterday to deal with the crisis which has seen several cities in the Hubei Province, including Wuhan, put into lockdown.
The new virus is thought to have originated at a seafood market in Wuhan, where wildlife including snakes was being sold illegally.
Thirty-nine of the 42 fatalities are from Wuhan, which has 11 million residents and is similar in size to London.
PRESSURE: Chinese president Xi Jinping
The Chinese premier said private vehicles will be banned from the central districts of Wuhan from today, with its airport, train and bus stations closed and taxis said to be not running.
Telling his government they were facing a “grave situation” and that the outbreak was “accelerating”, Mr Xi revealed a second emergency hospital will be built there within weeks to handle 1,300 new patients. This follows work on another new 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan that began last Friday, reportedly to be completed within 10 days.
Specialist military medical teams have also been flown into Hubei province, where half of the cases have been diagnosed, reflecting the concern at the highest level in China about the speed at which the virus is spreading. Of the estimated 700 people infected in Hubei, 57 were said to be in a critical condition last night.
In Hong Kong, the highest level of emergency has been declared and school holidays extended until February 17. A doctor from Wuhan, calling herself Jinhui, has claimed the Chinese government is underplaying the spread of the virus. Appearing in a video on the social networking site Telegram, she claimed: “I want to tell you the current position in Wuhan, Hubei. We estimate 90,000 affected.”
Members of the public are being checked for symptoms
She added: “Another point to emphasise is that the virus has now mutated from the original string. The mutation is not treatable and is spreading faster than the original virus string.”
Experts at Lancaster University predicted that if the epidemic continued unabated, more than 190,000 people in Wuhan will be infected by February 4.
Dr Jonathan Read, a biostatistics researcher, said travel restrictions were likely to be ineffective and that containing the virus could be “substantially more difficult” than in other outbreaks.
He also predicts that “infection will be established in other Chinese cities, and importations to other countries will be more frequent”.
But other experts said it was too early to make assumptions on the available data. Four cases were confirmed in Australia yesterday, one in Melbourne and three in Sydney. This followed three positive tests for the virus in France a day earlier, one in Bordeaux and two in the Paris area, which were the first in Europe.
Authorities have shut major tourist sites as well as public events
England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said there was a “fair chance” cases will emerge in Great Britain.
World Health Organisation officials have not classed the virus as an “international emergency”, partly because of the low number of overseas cases.
But Hu Yinghai, deputy director-general of the Civil Affairs Department in Hubei province, in appealing for more masks and protective suits yesterday, said: “Right now, we are facing an extremely severe public health crisis.”
Authorities have shut major tourist sites, including the Forbidden City in Beijing and a section of the Great Wall of China, and have cancelled major public events in other parts of the country.
Dr Hatchett warned the massive movement of people in China for its New Year celebrations, with its population of nearly 1.5 billion, creates the “perfect storm” for a virus to spread. He said: “If we are going to concoct a scenario that stacked the odds against you, this is probably nearly the optimally bad scenario.”