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China shuts down 13 cities as virus toll climbs

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Chinese authorities rapidly expanded a mammoth quarantine effort aimed at containing a deadly contagion on Friday to 13 cities and a staggering 41 million people, as nervous residents were checked for fevers and the death toll climbed to 26.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) held off on declaring a global emergency despite confirmed cases in half a dozen other countries, China expanded its lockdown to cover an area with a total population greater than Canada’s.

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A range of Lunar New Year festivities have been cancelled, while temporary closures of Beijing’s Forbidden City, Shanghai’s Disneyland and a section of the Great Wall were announced to prevent the disease from spreading further.

The previously unknown virus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed hundreds across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

AFP / Gal ROMA Wuhan: epicentre of the China virus outbreak

The WHO said China faced a national emergency but stopped short of making a declaration that would have prompted greater global cooperation, including possible trade and travel restrictions.

The outbreak emerged in late December in Wuhan, an industrial and transport hub of 11 million people in China’s centre, spreading to several other countries including the United States.

China is in the midst of its Lunar New Year holiday, a typically joyous time of family gatherings and public festivities.

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But on Friday Wuhan was a ghost town, its streets deserted and stores shuttered.

– Worried patients –

Hospitals visited by AFP journalists bustled with worried patients being screened by staff wearing full-body protective suits.

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At a temperature-check station, a medical staffer in bodysuit, face mask and goggles took a thermometer from a middle-aged woman, pausing to examine the reading before quickly turning back to the patient.

“Have you registered? Then go and see the doctor,” the staffer said.

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One 35-year-old man surnamed Li voiced the fears of many.

AFP / Hector RETAMAL The Huanan Seafood Wholesale market in Wuhan is thought to have been the source of the deadly pathogen

“I have a fever and cough, so I’m worried that I’m infected,” he said.

“I don’t know the results yet.”

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With hundreds of millions of people on the move across China for the holiday, the government has halted all travel out of Wuhan, shut down its public transport and told residents to stay home. Deepening the isolation, there were few flights available to the city.

“This year we have a very scary Chinese New Year. People are not going outside because of the virus,” said a taxi driver in the city, who asked not to be named.

But said a prolonged shutdown should not pose food-shortage problems because many Chinese had stocked up for the holiday.

Besides Wuhan, 12 other smaller cities nearby have battened down the hatches, with most of them going public on Friday with various measures ranging from closing public venues and restricting large gatherings to halting public transportation and asking citizens not to leave their cities.

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Several of the cities have populations numbering several million, led by Huanggang, which has 7.5 million.

The pathogen — 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) — has caused many outlets in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities to sell out their stocks of face masks.

As reports surfaced of bed shortages in Wuhan hospitals, state media said authorities were rushing to build a new facility devoted to the outbreak in a mind-blowing 10 days.

The Wuhan hospital is targeted to be ready by February 3. Dozens of excavators and trucks were filmed working on the site by state television.

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AFP / Anindira KINTARA Several countries, including Indonesia have stepped up screening measures against the virus that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan

To discourage nationwide travel, the government has said all tickets for rail, air, road, or water transport could be exchanged for a refund.

On Friday, staff in full body protective suits were seen checking the temperatures of people entering a subway station in Beijing.

Thermal cameras scanned passengers arriving at Beijing’s West Railway Station.

– ‘Work as one’ –

Chinese authorities said the number of cases leapt overnight to more than 800, with 177 in serious condition. There were another 1,072 suspected cases.

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Officials also said that a virus patient died in Heilongjiang province in China’s far northeast, the second death outside the Wuhan epicentre.

Beijing has been praised for its response in contrast to SARS, when it took months to report the disease and initially denied WHO experts any access.

Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, asked China’s people to forego New Year gatherings this year and confine themselves at home until the all-clear.

“If we all work as one, we can contain the virus in Wuhan and add no more cases exported from Wuhan, so as to stem the virus nationwide,” Gao told state TV.

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Beijing has cancelled popular New Year public events at temples in the capital, the historic Forbidden City will close from Saturday, and Shanghai Disneyland said it also will shut down for an indefinite period from Saturday to protect visitors and staff.


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Walkouts as Roman Polanski wins best director at French Oscars

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Roman Polanski won best director for "An Officer and a Spy" at a fractious ceremony for the French Oscars, the Cesars, that ended in walkouts and recrimination in Paris early Saturday.

The entire French academy had been forced to resign earlier this month amid fury that the veteran -- wanted in the US for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977 -- had topped the list of nominations.

Protesters chanting "Lock up Polanski!" tried to storm the theatre where the ceremony was being held before being pushed back by police firing tear gas.

And France's Culture Minister Franck Riester had warned that giving the maker of "Rosemary's Baby" a Cesar would be "symbolically bad given the stance we must take against sexual and sexist violence".

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Trump accuses Democrats of coronavirus ‘hoax’ as confirmed cases in US gather pace

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President Donald Trump accused Democrats of a new “hoax” over criticism of his handling of the coronavirus threat, as US health officials reported Friday a fourth case of novel coronavirus of unknown origin, indicating the disease was spreading in the country.

The latest case is a boy under 18 in Washington State who tested "presumptive positive" and is currently in home isolation in Snohomish County. The high school he attends will be shut until March 3 while it is deep cleaned, the Washington State Department of Health said.

A positive test is treated as "presumptive" until the results have been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Regulators move to fine telecoms for selling location data

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US regulators moved to impose fines Friday against the nation's four major wireless carriers for selling location data of customers without their consent.

The Federal Communications Commission proposed fining T-Mobile more than $91 million; AT&T some $57 million; Verizon $48 million, and Sprint $12 million.

The wireless firms were accused of having disclosed mobile network user location data to a third party without authorization from customers, the FCC said.

The FCC began an investigation after a report that a sheriff in Missouri used a "location-finding service" operated by a prison communications services company called Securus to track whereabouts of people including a judge and law enforcement officers.

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