BEIJING: China said on Thursday (Jan 23) that the number of people infected by a new coronavirus has hit 571, as authorities took a drastic step to contain the outbreak by suspending all flights and trains out of Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic.
At least 17 people have died from the SARS-like virus, which has also spread to other major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, as well as provinces in northeastern, central, and southern China.
The first case of the new virus was confirmed on Dec 31 and it has since been detected in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the United States.
The virus, which causes respiratory symptoms similar to a cold or flu, has been linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, the largest city in central China with a population of about 11 million. That market has since been shut down.
The Chinese government has classified the outbreak in the same category as the SARS epidemic, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the illness and the potential to implement quarantine measures.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that the virus can be passed between people, at least those in close contact.
It delayed a decision on Wednesday on whether to declare a global health emergency - a rare instrument used only for the worst outbreaks, saying it needed "more information".
The emergency committee will meet again from 1100GMT (7pm local time) on Thursday, after its chair, Didier Houssin, said the experts were split over declaring a public health emergency.
Wuhan is now under effective quarantine, with outward flights and trains suspended, subways halted and large public events cancelled.
Wuhan's special anti-virus command centre said the quarantine measures are meant to "effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb the outbreak and guarantee the people's health and safety," according to state media.
The decision came as hundreds of millions of people are travelling across China for the Chinese New Year holiday, which starts on Friday.
The city had already warned people to avoid entering or leaving Wuhan.
Authorities in Wuhan also made it mandatory to wear a mask in public places, according to state media.
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