Chinese officials expanded travel restrictions Thursday to include two more cities, one of which was also ordered to lock down to mitigate the spread of a deadly coronavirus.
China has closed off access to the major port city of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, and officials added Huanggang and Ezhou to the restricted list. Huanggang, like Wuhan previously, was also placed on lockdown, with public transportation halted.
Huanggang, 30 miles east of Wuhan, is home to 7 million people and Ezhou 1 million.
Chinese officials also said tighter regulations will be placed on certain vehicles leaving Wuhan, to prevent potentially infected persons from spreading the virus outside the restricted zone. And drivers and conductors should all be monitored and disinfected, a notice said.
The virus continued to spread regionally. Vietnam confirmed its first two cases of the coronavirus after two Chinese visitors from Wuhan took sick while visiting the country and were hospitalized Wednesday. The father, 66, and son, 28, were first diagnosed with pneumonia before testing positive for coronavirus.
In Singapore, a 66-year-old man who was part of a group of travelers from Wuhan was hospitalized and confirmed to have the virus. His 37-year-old son was also quarantined with a suspected case. Officials there said they do not believe the virus spread beyond their group.
Earlier, Chinese scientists said the coronavirus may have originated with a snake. The researchers published the findings in the Journal of Medical Virology, which says the virus most likely transferred to humans from the snake — a many-banded krait or Chinese cobra.
Scientists conducted a sequence analysis of the virus isolated from a patient and compared it to other animals, determining the two snakes — which are common in southeastern China — are most likely the source.
“Our findings suggest that the snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir,” the team wrote.
Researchers called for more investigation to confirm that snakes serve as reservoirs for the virus, but said their findings are “highly significant for effective control of the outbreak.”
Patients first became ill from the mystery virus last month that was later identified as a coronavirus the World Health Organization classifies as 2019-nCoV. The origin was traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, where a variety of live animals are sold, including snakes, chickens and bats.
The virus — which is similar to that which caused a SARS outbreak that killed hundreds in China in the early 2000s — has since jumped borders with cases reported in Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong and the United States. In China, at least 17 people have died and nearly 600 have become ill.
Chinese officials placed Wuhan under partial lockdown ahead of the Lunar New Year weekend, during which millions are expected to travel across the country. The partial lockdown took effect at 10 a.m. Thursday and halted all transportation in and out of the city. Trains, airplanes, buses, subways and ferries have been grounded and highways have been closed.
“People who don’t obey the requirements shall be dealt with by authorities in accordance with their respective duties and laws,” the Wuhan government said in a statement.
The WHO will meet again Thursday to decide if the outbreak constitutes “a public health emergency of international concern.”
“Our team in China working with local experts and officials to investigate the outbreak,” WHO Director-General Tedros Abhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday. “We will have much more to say [Thursday].”
By Darryl Coote & Clyde Hughes