Swat teams, police and paramilitary troops guarded the city’s main rail station on Thursday morning as the final trains departed before the lockdown began at 10am (2am GMT), with ferries, buses, the subway system and flights also suspended.
Wuhan, a sprawling city of 11 million people, is believed to be the epicentre of a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 17 and spread as far as the United States. The smaller neighbouring city of Huanggang was also placed on lockdown on Thursday.
Nearly 600 people are known to have been infected, but there were fears Chinese authorities could be under-reporting the epidemic as British researchers estimated there were as many as 4,000 cases in Wuhan alone.
The virus has been reported in other major cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well as overseas in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, prompting the World Health Organisation (WHO) to consider declaring an international public health emergency.
Chinese health officials fear the transmission rate will accelerate as hundreds of millions of people travel home or abroad during week-long holidays for the Lunar New Year, which begins on Saturday.
The country’s transport ministry ordered shuttle buses and ferries already on their way to Wuhan to turn back on Thursday, and said transport routes passing through the city should be adjusted to bypass it.
State media broadcast images of Hankou rail station, a key transport hub, nearly deserted with gates blocked. Road toll booths were reportedly closing down, effecting cutting off exit routes for cars, and guards were seen patrolling major highways.
As the city slipped into isolation, queues formed for checks at health centres and supermarket shelves were cleared as shoppers panic-bought supplies. There were fears of a shortage of face masks widely worn by those who ventured outside, with manufacturers reopening factories which had closed for the holidays and paying staff up to four times their normal wages to return to work.
Huanggang, a city of more than seven million people just to the east of Wuhan in Hubei province, said it would also suspend its public bus and rail networks at the end of Thursday. Businesses including cinemas and internet cafes were told to close and residents were asked not to leave the city other than under special circumstances, state media reported.
The WHO said it was too early to tell if the quarantine would successfully prevent the virus spreading further.
“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” said Gauden Galea, the UN agency’s representative in China. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure, so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work.”
The doctor, who visited a biosafety lab, hospital and airport in Wuhan earlier this week, said “we are now daily hearing of massive increases in the numbers” and “even if they are in the thousands, this would not surprise us”. But he added patient numbers alone did not indicate the severity of the outbreak as many cases were mild and the mortality rate had decreased.
Researchers at Imperial College London who studied the number and location of reported cases estimated that 4,000 people had been infected by the virus in Wuhan by 18 January.
“It is likely that the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan has caused substantially more cases of moderate or severe respiratory illness than have currently been detected and reported,” they said.
A panel of scientists were set to meet on Thursday at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva to consider whether the outbreak of the new coronavirus should be declared an international emergency. The 16 independent experts in disease control, virology, epidemiology and vaccine development were holding a second closed-doors meeting after they were unable to reach a decision on Wednesday.
In the US, at least 16 people were being monitored for signs of the disease after they had had close contact with a man in Washington state who was diagnosed with the first American case.
The patient, a 30-year-old man who had recently returned from Wuhan, is recovering well and may soon be discharged from Providence Regional Medical Centre in the city of Everett, said the hospital’s chief medical officer Jay Cook.