More than 7,700 cases of the virus have been confirmed in mainland China as of Wednesday evening, including 170 deaths, according to the country’s National Health Commission. This marks an increase of almost 30% in the number of cases from the previous day.
All 31 provinces and regions within China have now reported confirmed cases of the virus, including Tibet, which had instituted strict checks on travelers and shutdown tourist sites in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stop its spread to the region.
The continued rise in the number of infections comes as multiple countries evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.
There are more than 100 cases of the virus beyond mainland Chinese borders, and Indian authorities on Thursday confirmed their first case in a student who had studied in Wuhan. The virus now spans 20 countries or territories across North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Most concerning, instances of human-to-human transmission have been reported overseas, including in Germany, the first such case in Europe.
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday ordered the People’s Liberation Army to aid in “winning the battle against the novel coronavirus epidemic.” Military medical teams have already been sent to Wuhan and soldiers are also aiding with transporting supplies to the stricken city.
The World Health Organization (WHO) will meet again on Thursday to decide whether to declare the virus a global health emergency, something it has so far refrained from doing, despite widespread criticism.
In Wuhan itself, 11 million people are marking a week on lockdown with no sign of immediate relief. Nor is there firm evidence that their sacrifice has been worth it, with the virus spreading around the country and scientists warning that other major cities could soon become self-sustaining epidemics.
Online, people trapped in their houses have been uploading videos and photos showing various ways they are staying busy — staging makeshift Lunar New Year lion dances in their apartments, exercising, and urging others to keep their spirits up. But as the lockdown stretches on, such positivity may be harder to come by, particularly as some begin to feel the lost wages or business.
At the same time, foreigners in Wuhan are increasingly being airlifted out of the city. Multiple countries, including Japan, the US, South Korea, New Zealand, Canada and Australia have begun flying their citizens home — though all will face an extended quarantine once they arrive.
Those planes may soon have a lot more sky to themselves, as multiple major carriers have announced they are canceling flights to and from parts of China, including British Airways, American Airlines, Air Canada, KLM, Lufthansa and United. The moves follow travel guidance from multiple governments advising against “nonessential” travel to the country.
Across Asia and elsewhere, strict checks and screening have been put in place for all travelers arriving from China — though this may be ineffective as scientists previously warned that the virus can be spread while patients are asymptomatic.
Papua New Guinea said it will refuse entry to travelers coming from “any Asian ports,” while the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong has introduced new limits it says will cut the amount of mainland Chinese travelers coming to the city by 80%.
Is it enough?
Across China, the Lunar New Year holiday has been extended to next week, a potentially huge economic hit for a country already feeling the pain of the US-China trade war.
Some 60 million people across Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is the capital, are on some level of lockdown, and many travelers from the region have been ordered to self-quarantine, holed up in their apartments or hotel rooms for days on end.
While “Come on Wuhan!” has been a popular refrain online, and the country has largely pulled together to tackle the outbreak, there have also been reports of discrimination against Hubei residents, with them denied accommodation or entry to restaurants in other parts of the country.
As the country prepares to get back to work next week, there’s also the looming question of whether enough has been done. While the Wuhan lockdown may have stopped the even greater spread of the virus, it was too late to prevent it reaching every part of the country.
Outside of Hubei, infections are predicted to continue growing for weeks, if not months. Researchers at Imperial College London have estimated that at least 4,000 people were infected in Wuhan by January 18, almost a week before the lockdown began. Their model suggests a low national figure of 20,000 infections by the end of the month, potentially as high as 100,000.
Speaking to state media Tuesday, Zhong Nanshan, one of China’s leading respiratory experts and a hero of the 2003 fight against SARS, said he expected the peak to come in up to 10 days.
“It is very difficult to definitely estimate when the outbreak reaches its peak. But I think in one week or about 10 days, it will reach the climax and then there will be no large-scale increases,” Zhong said.
However, other experts have warned that while the outbreak in Hubei may peak in the coming weeks, other Chinese megacities may see self-sustaining epidemics that continue to spread the pathogen around the country and worldwide.
“We modeled epidemic curves out to August 2020 for all the major city clusters: Chongqing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Beijing. Chongqing is predicted to have the largest epidemic due to large population and most intense traffic volume coupled to Wuhan,” Gabriel Leung, a leading Hong Kong researcher and public health expert, said earlier this week.
He said outbreaks in China’s largest cities could peak in April or May and gradually slow in June and July.