China effectively quarantined 20 million people in what is thought to be the largest ever operation of its kind as authorities mounted a desperate attempt to control the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus.
Flights were grounded, train stations closed and roads blocked in and out of three major cities in an unprecedented lockdown on the epicentre of the mystery disease.
At least 17 people have died and 600 people are known to have contracted the virus that is thought to have come from a wholesale food market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people.
Travellers arriving after the ban went into effect were met by police, SWAT teams, paramilitary guards and metal barriers at the high-speed train station. People booked on trips beyond the deadline were turned away.
Transport links are also being sealed off in the neighbouring cities of Huanggang and Ezhou, affecting bus and rail routes. Authorities in Huanggang have even ordered entertainment venues, such as cinemas and internet cafes, to shut their doors.
The Chinese government has scrambled to put emergency measures in place ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on Friday.
Beijing is cancelling large-scale new year celebrations originally planned for the next few days, and closed the Forbidden City, the capital's most famous tourist attraction.
Chinese new year represents the world’s biggest annual migration, a festive occasion with people sharing snacks on long train rides home and stuffing suitcases full of gifts to hand out, as they head home for the holidays.
Hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel in the country and abroad, which could complicate how the disease spreads. Most of China’s provinces already have at least one confirmed case.
The scale and speed at which the disease has spread has left Chinese authorities facing mounting criticism that the lockdown is too little too late. Experts were also casting doubt on the effectiveness of the quarantine.
Dr Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy told The Telegraph that although "nothing in history can compare" to the operation, maintaining the quarantine is "impossible".
Trying to contain a city with millions “has not been tried before as a public health measure, so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work”, said Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in China.
Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told The Telegraph that the lockdown may push some people to attempt to escape the city to avoid being trapped, as witnessed during the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
He added: "Even in China I suspect it's going to be very difficult to rigorously enforce. You're talking about cordoning off a city of the size of New York - it's inconceivable. It remains to be seen how coercive this enforcement will prove to be." In Wuhan residents voiced concerns about shortages of food and disinfectant "We are feeling as though it is the end of the world," said one resident on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform said. "The new pneumonia is our new common enemy," Shi Chengwei, a driver, added. Despite the lockdown some remained unperturbed and ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday.
“No, I’m not afraid,” said Ms Xu, 43, a seafood vendor at a market in Wuhan thought to be the source of the virus outbreak.
“I wasn’t even afraid of Sars – why should I be frightened by this?” she said, referring to a similar epidemic that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people worldwide in 2002 to 2003.
Chinese authorities have since closed the Wuhan market, handing out cash subsidies to merchants to offset a loss in revenue.
Over the last few days, researchers have released papers studying the genetic sequence of the virus, concluding that it could have originated from snakes or bats, before being transmitted to humans.
According to the South China Morning Post, the market where the virus was discovered advertised live foxes, crocodiles, wolf puppies, salamanders, snakes, rats, peacocks, porcupines and koalas.
Identifying the source could go a long way in helping authorities devise a more robust public health response, said Chen Xi, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health.
“If you don’t know this, you don’t know why the virus spread,” said Mr Chen.
A handful of cases have been confirmed in five countries, with others displaying symptoms being isolated and monitored.
Governments and health officials have remained on high alert as they rushed to increase measures to protect their citizens, including screening passengers arriving from China. London Heathrow has begun separating travellers landing on flights from Wuhan.
Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control has set up an epidemic command centre, and said it would make millions of protective masks available to the public.
In Taipei, the national capital, there was a noticeable rise in the number of people wearing surgical masks on the metro, while employees were spotted disinfecting station turnstiles.
In Hong Kong, where 55 patients are under isolation, pan-democracy legislators, all wearing face masks, staged a protest to criticise the government for its slow handling of the crisis.
Cebu Pacific, a Philippine airline, issued an advisory to passengers who flew from Hong Kong to Manila on Wednesday after press reports emerged that the family of a Wuhan man quarantined in Hong Kong with the virus were on board.
Additional reporting from Yiyin Zhong.
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