WUHAN: A woman leaves the Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre, where a man who died from a respiratory illness was confined, in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province, yesterday. – AFP

WUHAN: Wuhan, the Chinese city known as the home of a new virus that has sickened dozens, killed one man and sparked international concern, is not an obvious holiday destination. But Tian, a tourist from another metropolis around three hours’ drive away, decided to make the trip despite trepidation from his family over reports of a mysterious pneumonia outbreak.

“I said I should be fine, so I came,” he said after checking out of his hotel yesterday, wearing a face mask as a precaution nonetheless. Residents of the central city seem just as unconcerned about the disease, believed to be from the same family as SARS — an infectious coronavirus that killed hundreds of people in mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

So far 41 people with pneumonia-like symptoms have been diagnosed with the new virus in Wuhan, with authorities disclosing on Saturday the death of a 61-year-old man two days earlier. The outbreak began just weeks before China’s busiest annual travel period, and national plane and rail authorities are closely watching developments as millions prepare to visit family at Lunar New Year.

No clear evidence of human-to-human transmission has yet been detected, according to the local health commission. Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city center — where multiple pneumonia patients worked — is still cordoned off after being shut down on January 1.

But multiple restaurants sharing the same building were open and serving customers early Sunday morning. Initial reports about the virus had raised fears that SARS was back, prompting authorities to punish eight people for posting false information online.

While the outbreak sparked a run on face masks at pharmacies in Hong Kong, where scientists urged people to stay vigilant, few on the streets of central Wuhan were sporting masks this weekend. Most of the guards stationed around the seafood market were not wearing protective gear, although one group of security staff who had entered the market area wore masks and hats and were instructed at a morning briefing to stay covered at all times.

Multiple people without safety equipment were seen exiting and entering the market, however, while some guards appeared more concerned about the spread of unflattering images than contagion. One of them threatened to track down AFP reporters for filming a confrontation between the guards and an elderly man who wanted to enter the market. The same guard said merchants had been allowed to enter the facility to check on their stalls, accompanied by security staff.

‘Nothing you can do’

Chinese scientists said last week they believe the pathogen is a previously unknown type of coronavirus — a broad family ranging from the common cold to more serious illnesses like SARS. Hong Kong’s Department of Health said Saturday that genetic sequencing of the virus found in one of the Wuhan patients indicated it was 80 percent similar to SARS found in bats.

But they said it was too soon to conclude that it was a SARS strain. Outside the medical center in Wuhan where the infected are being treated, patients discharged after being seen for other illnesses waited for buses and taxis, some without face masks. Visitors were free to enter and exit the hospital compound, although a guard physically blocked AFP from filming a group of patients moving between buildings, saying it was a “sensitive” scene.

Two women surnamed Yan and Shu who had been discharged said on Sunday that hospital authorities had pushed overnight for as many patients unrelated to the pneumonia outbreak to be sent home as possible. “Most of the building is empty,” Shu said, adding that she believed more pneumonia patients would soon be transferred there.

Another woman surnamed Yan, waiting for a bus near the hospital with her husband and three-year-old daughter, said she was concerned about the virus but felt there was little point in worrying. “If the illness looks for us, there’s nothing we can do,” she said. Her husband Cao said most of their neighbours in the Wuchang district across the river from Huanan market were “not worried”, as they rarely crossed over to the other side of the city. – AFP