A viral illness in China that has sickened hundreds of people is not yet a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said today.

WHO issued its evaluation after Chinese authorities moved to lock down five cities earlier in the day and cancelled major events in the capital, Beijing, during the Lunar New Year holiday period to try to contain the new virus.

The United Nations health agency made the decision after independent experts spent two days assessing information about the spread of the newly identified coronavirus.

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"It's too early to consider this as a public health emergency of international concern," Didier Houssin, the chair of the emergency advisory committee, said, noting that the panel "was very divided, almost 50-50."

WHO defines a global emergency as an "extraordinary event" that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. Previous global emergencies have been declared for the emergence of Zika virus in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic, and polio.

Chinese authorities are locking down cities that are home to more than 18 million people in an unprecedented effort to try to contain the deadly new virus that has sickened hundreds and spread to other parts of the world.

The train station and the airport in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, are shut down, and bus, ferry and subway service has been halted.

The city of Huanggang announced a suspension of bus and rail systems and encouraged people not to leave the city. Cafes, cinemas, theatres and exhibitions are being shut.

Shortly afterwards, Ezhou to the south shut its train stations.

A woman wearing a protective face mask visits a store selling Chinese new year decorations in Hong Kong. In Beijing, officials cancelled 'major events' indefinitely. Photo / AP
A woman wearing a protective face mask visits a store selling Chinese new year decorations in Hong Kong. In Beijing, officials cancelled 'major events' indefinitely. Photo / AP

Xiantao has cancelled gatherings, suspended transport and set up temperature detection stations.

Chibi and Lichuan are suspending transport, AFP reports.

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In the capital, Beijing, officials cancelled "major events" indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of holiday celebrations, in order to "execute epidemic prevention and control." The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing that is now a museum, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.

Seventeen people have died in the outbreak, all of them in and around Wuhan, which is home to 11 million. Close to 600 have been infected, the vast majority of them in Wuhan, and many countries, have begun screening travellers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, trouble breathing and pneumonia. New Zealand is not screening passengers.

Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns will last. While sweeping measures are typical of China's communist government, large-scale quarantines are rare around the world, even in deadly epidemics, because of concerns about infringing on people's liberties. And the effectiveness of such measures is unclear.

"To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science," Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization's representative in China, said in an interview. "It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work."

Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at molecular virology at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the lockdowns appear to be justified scientifically.

Tourists wear protective face masks along the waterfront in Hong Kong yesterday. China closed off five cities on the mainland, halting transportation and warning against public gatherings. Photo / AP
Tourists wear protective face masks along the waterfront in Hong Kong yesterday. China closed off five cities on the mainland, halting transportation and warning against public gatherings. Photo / AP

"Until there's a better understanding of what the situation is, I think it's not an unreasonable thing to do," he said. "Anything that limits people's travels during an outbreak would obviously work."

But Ball cautioned that any such quarantine should be strictly time-limited. He added: "You have to make sure you communicate effectively about why this is being done. Otherwise you will lose the goodwill of the people."

During the devastating West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, Sierra Leone imposed a national three-day quarantine as health teams went door-to-door searching for hidden cases. Frustrated residents complained of food shortages amid deserted streets. Burial teams collecting Ebola corpses and people transporting the sick to Ebola centers were the only ones allowed to move freely.

In China, the illnesses from the newly identified coronavirus first appeared last month in Wuhan, an industrial and transportation hub in central China's Hubei province. Other cases have been reported in the US, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong reported their first cases Thursday.

Hospital staff wash the emergency entrance of Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre on Wednesday, where some infected with a new virus are being treated. Photo / AP
Hospital staff wash the emergency entrance of Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre on Wednesday, where some infected with a new virus are being treated. Photo / AP

Most of the illnesses outside China involve people who were from Wuhan or had recently travelled there.

Images from Wuhan showed long lines and empty shelves at supermarkets, as residents stocked up for what could be weeks of isolation. That appeared to be an over-reaction, since no restrictions were placed on trucks carrying supplies into the city, although many Chinese have strong memories of shortages in the years before the country's recent economic boom.

Local authorities in Wuhan demanded all residents wear masks in public places. Police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded Wuhan's train station.

Liu Haihan left Wuhan last Friday after visiting her boyfriend there. She said everything was normal then, before human-to-human transmission of the virus was confirmed. But things had changed rapidly.

Her boyfriend "didn't sleep much yesterday. He disinfected his house and stocked up on instant noodles," Liu said. "He's not really going out. If he does, he wears a mask."

The sharp rise in illnesses comes as millions of Chinese travel for the Lunar New Year, one of the world's largest annual migrations of people. Chinese are expected to take an estimated 3 billion trips during the 40-day spike in travel.

Staff sell face masks at a Yifeng Pharmacy in Wuhan, China. Pharmacies in Wuhan are restricting customers to buying one mask at a time amid high demand. Photo / AP
Staff sell face masks at a Yifeng Pharmacy in Wuhan, China. Pharmacies in Wuhan are restricting customers to buying one mask at a time amid high demand. Photo / AP

Analysts predicted cases will continue to multiply, although the jump in numbers is also attributable in part to increased monitoring.

"Even if (cases) are in the thousands, this would not surprise us," the WHO's Galea said, adding, however, that the number of those infected is not an indicator of the outbreak's severity, so long as the mortality rate remains low.

The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed about 800 people, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which is thought to have originated from camels.

China is keen to avoid repeating mistakes with its handling of SARS. For months, even after the illness had spread around the world, China parked patients in hotels and drove them around in ambulances to conceal the true number of cases and avoid WHO experts.
In the current outbreak, China has been credited with sharing information rapidly, and President Xi Jinping has emphasized that as a priority.

"Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels must put people's lives and health first," Xi said Monday. "It is necessary to release epidemic information in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation."

Health authorities were taking extraordinary measures to prevent additional person-to-person transmissions, placing those believed infected in plastic tubes and wheeled boxes, with air passed through filters.

The first cases in the Wuhan outbreak were connected to people who worked at or visited a seafood market, which has since been closed for an investigation. Experts suspect that the virus was first transmitted from wild animals but that it may also be mutating. Mutations can make it deadlier or more contagious.

WHO convened its emergency committee of independent experts on Thursday to consider whether the outbreak should be declared a global health emergency, after the group failed to come to a consensus on Wednesday.

The UN health agency defines a global emergency as an "extraordinary event" that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response.
A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater money and resources, but may also prompt nervous governments to restrict travel to and trade with affected countries. The announcement also imposes more disease-reporting requirements on countries.

Declaring an international emergency can also be politically fraught. Countries typically resist the notion that they have a crisis within their borders and may argue strenuously for other control measures.

- AP