KEY POINTS

  • At least 26 people in China have died from the virus
  • The city of Wuhan is quickly building a hospital to treat overflow of patients
  • Places as far away as U.S. and Saudi Arabia have reported cases

China's National Health Commission reported on Friday that 26 people have now died from the deadly coronavirus and at least 870 people have become infected, including a child only 10 years old.

In an unprecedented move, Chinese officials have locked down at least 13 cities in central China with a combined population of about 40 million in a desperate effort to contain the outbreak. Transport in and out of these cities have either ceased or been severely restricted.

The Finance Ministry has pledged 1 billion yuan ($144 million) to fight the deadly coronavirus.

Other major cities across China have canceled public events linked to weeklong Lunar New Year celebration. Beijing's Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland and other tourist attractions have closed. Cinemas across the nation have canceled screenings.

“This is unprecedented in China, and maybe even in the history of modern health,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, of the travel restrictions. “It’s a tremendous legal, institutional, not to mention logistical challenge.”

Health officials suspect the new coronavirus was transferred to the human population by an infected animal in Wuhan in central China, the epicenter of the crisis.

Local authorities in Wuhan said Friday they will quickly build a 1,000-bed hospital to treat the coronavirus. The facility is planned for a 270,000-square-foot lot and is expected to be finished in early February.

The panic construction was fueled by a health system in Wuhan that has become overwhelmed by patients. The hospital will be made cheaply from prefabricated buildings on the outskirts of the city.

In April 2003, authorities in Beijing built a hospital in only seven days to deal with the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak in 2003 that killed 800 people. The People's Daily newspaper called that hospital "a miracle in the history of medicine."

But for now, many patients in Wuhan are being turned away due to lack of space or treatment facilities.

A businessman named Xiang Dong said he visited five hospitals across Wuhan on Thursday, all overwhelmed with patients. “There were a lot of people, and some patients’ situations really make you sad, a family of three all getting sick,” he said. “The situation is really bad. Really concerning.”

The current virus has been detected in several other countries, including Japan, South Korea, Macau, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and even as far away as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. 

In the U.S., 50 patients in 22 states, including students in Tennessee and Texas, were being tested for the virus as of Friday morning. The Chicago Department of Public Health reported that a woman who returned from a trip to China earlier this month was diagnosed with the virus. A man returning to Seattle from China also tested positively for the virus.

The U.S. State Department said all non-emergency U.S. personnel and their families were to leave Hubei province where Wuhan is located.

"These illnesses can pop up anywhere," said Trish Perl, chief of infectious diseases at University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "This is a dynamic situation that can dramatically change from day to day."

Others have questioned the efficacy of screening for the virus, particularly at airports which use a method called temperature screening.

“The whole airport screening exercise is to simply give people comfort that there is some government action to protect the public,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington D.C. “It has no real public health utility in the case of coronaviruses. What really matters is surveillance, infection control and isolation.”

On Thursday the World Health Organization said it was too early to declare the virus outbreak a global public health emergency.

But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, also warned: “Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”

While Chinese Communist Party leaders have allowed public criticism of lower level officials, including the mayor of Wuhan who is now facing demands that he resign for failing to effectively deal with the virus, foreign entities have generally praised China’s response to the health crisis.

“There’s a big difference [from the SARS outbreak of 2003]. We have a much more transparent China,” Germany’s Health Minister, Jens Spahn said at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “The [actions by] China is much more effective [than what we saw in 2003] in the first days already.”