Lunar New Year Holiday extended as death toll rises to 80 in China

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China will mark the Lunar New Year for longer than usual to help stem the rapid spread of the coronavirus that has killed at least 80 people.

Government officials are using the holiday, when many Chinese leave cities to return to their hometowns, to avoid having more than 3 billion trips contribute to the spread. The extension will be “to a proper extent” beyond Jan. 30, state media Xinhua News said Sunday, citing a government statement after a meeting led by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

The risk-off trading that dominated U.S. markets on Friday continued Monday in Asia. The Australian dollar fell as investors reacted to the spread of the virus and the offshore yuan fell after China extended the holiday.

The decision on the holiday comes as President Xi Jinping’s government is under pressure to combat a virus that shows little sign of slowing down. Chinese state TV has reported more than 2,000 confirmed cases on the mainland. Deaths in the country climbed to at least 80 from just two a week ago.

Mainland China accounts for 98% of confirmed global infections, while more than a dozen countries and territories reported the illness within their borders. The World Health Organization said of 29 patients with infections outside China, 26 traveled through Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

The U.S. confirmed three cases within 24 hours: two in Southern California and one in Maricopa County, Arizona. All the patients had recently been in Wuhan and are hospitalized. Their close contacts are being monitored for signs that they may be developing the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday. Washington state and Chicago earlier had confirmed infections.

“The U.S. has faced multiple pandemics before, of varying degrees of severity,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “We need to be preparing as if this is a pandemic, but I continue to hope that it is not.”

In all, the CDC tested samples from just over 100 people, a group known as persons of investigation. While five were found to be infected, 25 tested negative. Results are pending for the others, officials said Sunday.

Officials told reporters Sunday that information on the new virus is limited even though the pathogen was identified relatively quickly, and its transmission is increasing. China banned wildlife trade across the country, prohibiting the shipping and sale of wild animals and quarantining breeding sites, with the government warning against the consumption of wild animals.

Chinese authorities on Sunday also said the virus isn’t yet under control despite aggressive steps by authorities to limit movement for millions of people who live in cities near the center of the outbreak.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang said at a briefing on Sunday that the city may see 1,000 more confirmed cases, citing a 45% estimated confirmed ratio for the 2,700 suspected patients under observation. Separately, Hong Kong officials announced the city would bar residents of Hubei Province, where Wuhan is based, from entering the former British colony after midnight local time on Sunday. The ban would also apply to anyone who had traveled to Hubei in the past 14 days. An exception would be made for Hong Kong residents, the statement said.

The U.S. consulate in Wuhan plans to evacuate some Americans in a charter flight on Tuesday, and other governments and companies have said they are prepared to help their people leave the city that’s under lockdown. France is seeking approval to repatriate its citizens by mid-week, the health minister said Sunday. Japan also plans to evacuate nationals who wish to leave Wuhan, NHK said. More than 700 Japanese are believed to be in the city.

Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and South Korea also had more confirmed cases on Sunday, while Canada announced its first case on Saturday. Taiwan confirmed a fourth case of a woman who had visited Wuhan during the New Year’s holiday and then traveled in Europe before being diagnosed on her return on Jan. 25

In Hong Kong, authorities halted plans to establish a possible quarantine center in the northern New Territories district of Fanling after protests by nearby residents and local councilors. In France, the organizers of a Chinese New Year parade in Paris scheduled for Sunday canceled the event due to virus fears.

More than 1,600 people will be sent to Wuhan over the next two days to assist in efforts to contain the spread. The Chinese government is banning all outgoing overseas group tours as of Monday after suspending domestic group tours last week.

Scientists have been working to understand the virus better, how contagious it is and where it comes from. First detected in Wuhan last month, it has sparked fears that the disease could rival SARS, the pandemic that claimed almost 800 lives 17 years ago.

A clinical trial is underway using anti-HIV drugs ritonavir and lopinavir to treat cases of the new coronavirus, according to an article published in The Lancet medical journal Friday. Beijing’s municipal health commission said on Sunday the drugs made by AbbVie Inc. are part of the National Health Commission’s latest treatment plan, and its hospitals have supplies of the medicine if needed.

The new virus has an incubation period of about two weeks before infected people start to show symptoms, which resemble a cold or flu, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus is believed to have emerged last month in a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan, spreading from infected animals to humans, and police have raided wildlife markets across eastern China.

China has made strides in monitoring and detecting infectious diseases since SARS and tightened controls on the sale of exotic animals, considered nourishing in some parts of the country. Yet the markets, which offer conditions that can set off potentially deadly contagions, remain popular and a central part of life in many cities throughout Asia.

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