The deadly virus spreading across China has spurred a run on protective face masks and hand sanitizer, with store shelves stripped and re-sellers hawking the items for inflated prices.
In one Shanghai mall, customers lined up for nearly an hour at a drugstore Wednesday waiting for a shipment of 100 boxes of masks to arrive. They sold out within 30 minutes, said pharmacist Duan Yueqi, even after the store limited each person to one pack each. Staffers told customers immediately upon entry: "everything is gone."
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With the number of reported infections from the new SARS-like virus climbing to 440 across 13 of China's provinces, and concern the tally could rise, the streets and subways of major Chinese cities have become a sea of masks. Hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens are preparing to travel for the Lunar New Year holiday period, which starts on Friday, and the government said Wednesday it is starting a nationwide screening program and implementing controls at transportation links.
Nine people have died after contracting the infection, all from in and around Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus emerged.
Companies from HSBC Holdings to Citic Securities suspended non-essential work travel to Wuhan, while Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings canceled its annual Lunar New Year tradition of top executives handing out red packets of money to staffers -- to minimize human contact.
In Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, the streets were quiet during what should have been the start of a festive period. People stayed home after local authorities canceled celebratory events and discouraged residents from going to crowded places.
Social media users shared videos of empty subway cars; at least one home for the elderly asked people not to visit their relatives as a precaution.
Still, some residents kept calm and carried on. Wang Ping, a 61-year-old retiree who lives a 30-minute drive from the food market where the virus is suspected to have transferred from wild animals to humans, said her brother's family is still planning to drive over to neighboring Anhui province to celebrate the New Year holiday, one of the most important dates on the Chinese calendar.
"It's business as usual around here," she said. "It will definitely be controlled."
Meanwhile, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s e-commerce platform Taobao tried to stem the mask inflation on its marketplace, saying that it wouldn't allow merchants to raise mask prices and that vendors had enough supplies.
The People's Daily newspaper reported Wednesday that Hubei province -- where Wuhan is located -- planned to seek emergency help from Beijing to help fill the shortfall of medical equipment. The local government estimated that it would only be able to supply 8 million masks, and would need to request another 40 million.