Updated at 6 a.m. ET
Construction workers in China were scrambling to build a makeshift quarantine and treatment facility on the outskirts of Wuhan, the epicenter of a rapidly spreading new viral pneumonia that has killed 26 people and infected 876 others in the country.
Taking a page from the plan Beijing developed to combat Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome 17 years ago, hundreds of workers were being paid up to three times their normal wage (as much as $173 per day) to get the center built in under a week, local officials were quoted as saying.
The urgency comes as authorities deal with a newly discovered coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, that originated in Wuhan, a city of 11 million located in central China. Since then, it has spread throughout the country, with several cases emerging in other parts of Asia and one in the U.S.
The facility, going up in the Caidian district in Wuhan’s west, will occupy 25,000 square meters and accommodate 1,000 beds, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily reports.
A similar quarantine center was hurriedly constructed in Beijing’s Changping district in April 2003 in an effort to contain the SARS epidemic.
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, and seven other cities in the province, have been placed under a soft quarantine, with public transport shut down ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations on Saturday, when traditionally hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to family gatherings. Officials have also closed public gathering places, such as movie theaters and internet cafes in some cities.
Speaking at a news conference in Geneva on Thursday, the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while WHO’s assessment is that the outbreak represents a “high risk” regionally and globally, it is “too early” to declare it an international health concern.
“Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China,” he said. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”
Shanghai on Friday raised its public health alert level to 1, the highest, following similar moves by Beijing, Hubei, Hunan, Zhejiang, Anhui and Guangdong provinces.
Beijing officials announced the cancellation of large public events in the capital, including traditional temple fairs associated with the Lunar New Year. They’ve also closed many tourist destinations, such as the Forbidden City. Shanghai Disneyland announced on its website that it will close indefinitely beginning Saturday.
In Hebei province, which straddles Beijing, officials reported the death of an 80-year-old man, who had previously lived in Wuhan, and had tested positive for the virus. His was the first known death from the new strain outside of Hubei.
Outside of China, Thailand has reported four cases, Singapore three, with Japan, Vietnam and South Korea each reporting two. Like the U.S., Taiwan has reported one case.
In response to the spread of the virus, airports worldwide have stepped up screening of passengers arriving from China, conducting temperature checks that would indicate fever and looking for other symptoms, including cough and difficulty breathing. Older people and those with underlying health conditions are considered the most vulnerable to the virus.
In other developments, the State Council, China’s cabinet, has taken direct control of response measures. Also on Friday, the Ministry of Science and Technology appointed Zhong Nanshan, a key figure in the country’s response to SARS, to head a group of scientists to develop a “joint prevention and control working mechanism” to control the virus.