As the death toll from a SARS-like virus in China reaches nine and with hundreds more people infected, it couldn't be worse timing for China, writes Yvonne Murray in Beijing.

In what's known as the biggest annual human migration on the planet, millions of people are already on the move across the country, travelling home to spend Chinese New Year with their families.

In the early stages of the virus, people might not be aware they are infected, as those early symptoms include a stuffy nose, sore throat, fever and cough - similar to a common cold.

And because the virus is carried in droplets - usually from an infected person sneezing, spitting or coughing - it can survive on surfaces for days.

"Lots of people have already left for Chinese New Year, so it looks like the apocalypse here".

With hundreds of thousands of people passing through China’s crowded transport hubs and public transport network, touching ticket machines, handrails and armrests, the risk of person-to-person transmission is severe.

The Chinese government ramped up its rhetoric this week. On Monday, President Xi Jinping said the disease must be "resolutely contained."

"When Xi Jinping starts talking about it, we know it’s serious," said one concerned Beijing resident.

In response, many people cancelled their trips home. Others tried to get their money back on hotel bookings, opting to stay indoors instead.

It's feared the death toll and number of infected will continue to rise.

"The virus has the potential to mutate and there is a risk it could spread further," said Li Bin, vice director of the National Health Commission at a news conference in Beijing this morning.

What is it?

Coronavirus is a group of viruses which can cause pneumonia or severe conditions such as Middle East respiratory syndrome, Mers, and severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS. 

The outbreak of pneumonia coronavirus, 2019-nCOV, has been traced back to a seafood market, which also sells animal meat, in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, in Hubei province. 

The outbreak was reported to the World Health Organisation on 31 December. 

Fifteen healthcare workers who treated infected patients are among the suspected cases in Wuhan. 


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In the city of 11 million, surgical masks have been selling out as residents try to protect themselves from infection. 

At Wuhan airport, temperature screening stations have been set up and spot-checks are being carried out on car passengers on their way out of the city.

"Lots of people have already left for Chinese New Year, so it looks like the apocalypse here", said Conor O’Neill, a teacher from Dublin, who is based in Wuhan.

"Anyone who is still here is walking around wearing a mask," he said.

"But some people don’t seem to care," he added.

Lunar Year celebrations have been cancelled and local officials have warned anyone with a fever to report to hospital and not to travel. Visitors have also been advised to stay away.

Contagion

But the virus has already spread far beyond Wuhan.

Health authorities have reported cases in other Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. There are suspected cases in Hong Kong as well as Macau.

Infected people have also identified in other countries including, Japan, Thailand and South Korea. One man recently returning from a trip to Wuhan, has been admitted to hospital in the US, displaying symptoms.

A nurse checks a patient's temperature next to a poster about the coronavirus at a hospital in Bangkok

The spectre of SARS looms large  in China.

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which started in Guangdong province in the south, in 2002, killed nearly 800 people globally and infected more than 8,000 according to World Health Organization statistics.

It spread to 24 countries before it was brought under control.

Chinese health authorities were accused of a cover-up, having failed to inform the public or international experts when the disease was first detected. 

Unreported cases caused the virus to quickly spread across the region. By the time the WHO found out in February 2003, the disease had become an epidemic.

China's government-run media has been at pains this week to point out that China's health emergency response system has developed significantly since the SARS crisis. 

An editorial in the Global Times newspaper urged local officials to report cases in a "timely manner" and said that China would be able to "launch preventive and control measures rapidly."

The WHO will convene an emergency panel of experts in Geneva to determine whether the Wuhan novel coronavirus outbreak should be deemed "a public health emergency of international concern."

The designation would put the Wuhan coronavirus in the same category as the 2019 Ebola outbreak in Eastern Congo and the 2009 H1N1 swine flu.

It could result in WHO recommendations being made, to curb the spread of the virus.