China's leader calls situation grave as nation scrambles to contain virus

China's leader has called the accelerating spread of a new virus a grave situation, as cities from the outbreak's epicenter in central China to Hong Kong scrambled to contain an illness that has infected more than 1200 people and killed 41.

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Three cities in China are placed into lockdown with travel restrictions in place. Source: Breakfast

President Xi Jinping's remarks, reported by state broadcaster CCTV overnight, came at a meeting of Communist Party leaders convened on Lunar New Year — the country's biggest holiday whose celebrations have been muted — and underlined the government's urgent, expanding efforts to control the outbreak.

Travel agencies have been told to halt all group tours, the state-owned English-language China Daily newspaper reported, citing the China Association of Travel Services.

Millions of people traveling during the holiday have fueled the spread of the outbreak nationwide and overseas after it began in the city of Wuhan in central China. The vast majority of the infections and all the deaths have been in mainland China, but fresh cases are popping up.

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France and Australia confirmed cases of the deadly virus today. Source: 1 NEWS

Australia and Malaysia reported their first cases yesterday, and Japan, its third. France also confirmed three cases - the first in Europe -and the US identified its second, a woman in Chicago who had returned from China.

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Three cases of China coronavirus confirmed in New South Wales

In the heart of the outbreak, Wuhan, whose 11 million residents are already on lockdown, banned most vehicle use, including private cars, in downtown areas starting today, state media reported. Only authorised vehicles carrying supplies and for other needs would be permitted, the reports said.

The city will assign 6000 taxis to different neighbourhoods, under the management of resident committees, to help people get around if they need to, China Daily said.

In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam said her government will raise its response level to emergency, the highest one, and close primary and secondary schools for two more weeks on top of next week's Lunar New Year holiday. They will reopen February 17.

Lam said direct flights and trains from Wuhan would be blocked.

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But the World Health Organisation has decided it’s too early to declare a global health emergency. Source: 1 NEWS

In a sign of the growing strain on Wuhan's health care system, the official Xinhua news agency reported that the city planned to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1000 beds. The city previously announced construction of a hospital of the same size that was expected to be completed February 3.

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.

China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan earlier in the week, as well as public transportation within the city, and has steadily expanded a 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.

China's most festive holiday, Lunar New Year, unfolded in the shadow of the worrying new virus. Authorities cancelled a host of Lunar New Year events, and closed major tourist destinations and movie theatres.

Temples locked their doors, Beijing's Forbidden City and Shanghai Disneyland closed, and people cancelled restaurant reservations ahead of the holiday, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.

“We originally planned to go back to my wife’s hometown and bought train tickets to depart this afternoon,” said Li Mengbin, who was on a stroll by the moat of the closed Forbidden City. “We ended up cancelling. But I’m still happy to celebrate the new year in Beijing, which I hadn’t for several years.”

Temples and parks were decorated with red streamers, paper lanterns and booths, but some places started dismantling the decor after the cancellations.

People in China wore masks to restaurants and grocery stores, where workers dispensed hand sanitiser to customers. Some parts of the country had checkpoints for temperature readings and made masks mandatory.

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The WHO made the assessment on January 24, as China continues to grapple with the deadly outbreak. Source: Breakfast

The National Health Commission reported a jump in the number of infected people to 1287. The latest tally, from 29 provinces and cities across China, included 237 patients in serious condition.

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Coronavirus numbers spike in China to 41 dead, 1287 cases

Of the 41 deaths, 39 have been in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital city, and one each in Hebei and Heilongjiang provinces. Most of the deaths have been older patients, though a 36-year-old man in Hubei died this week.

Elsewhere, the Australian state of Victoria announced its first case yesterday, a man in his 50s who returned from China last week. The state of New South Wales confirmed three more cases later in the day.

Malaysia said three people had tested positive, all relatives of a father and son from Wuhan who had been diagnosed with the virus earlier in neighbouring Singapore. It said a fourth case was a traveller from Wuhan who tested positive and was unrelated to the other cases.

Japan confirmed a third case, a Chinese tourist in her 30s who had arrived from Wuhan on January 18.

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The number of cases has rocketed to more than 500 and growing, and its not just in China. Source: 1 NEWS

The National Health Commission said it is bringing in medical teams to help handle the outbreak, a day after videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations and complaints that family members had been turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.

The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks, including SARS and Ebola, who arrived in Wuhan to help treat many patients hospitalised with viral pneumonia, Xinhua reported.

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.

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.

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 US alone.