The spread of the deadly coronavirus is accelerating, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned, after holding a special government meeting on the Lunar New Year public holiday.
China is facing a “grave situation” President Xi told senior officials.
The new virus has killed at least 56 people and infected almost 2,000 since its discovery in the city of Wuhan.
Meanwhile, the US has announced that staff at the Wuhan consulate will be evacuated on a special flight on January 28.
According to the State Department, private Americans most at risk will also be able to board the flight to San Francisco.
Meanwhile, UK-based researchers have warned of a real possibility that China will not be able to contain the virus.
Travel restrictions have come in place in several affected cities. From January 26, private vehicles will be banned from central districts of Wuhan, the source of the outbreak.
According to Chinese state newspaper the People’s Daily, a second emergency hospital is to be built there within weeks to handle 1,300 new patients, and will be finished in half a month. It is the second such rapid construction project: work on another 1,000-bed hospital has already begun.
Specialist military medical teams have also been flown into Hubei province, where Wuhan is located.
The urgency reflects concern both within China and elsewhere about the virus which first appeared in December.
Lunar New Year celebrations for the year of the rat, which began on January 25, have been canceled in many Chinese cities.
Across mainland China, travelers are having their temperatures checked for signs of fever, and train stations have been shut in several cities.
Hong Kong has declared the highest level of emergency and school holidays were extended.
Several other nations are each dealing with a handful of cases, with patients being treated in isolation.
A coronavirus is a family of viruses which include the common cold.
However, this virus has never been seen before. It is called 2019-nCov, for “novel coronavirus”.
New viruses can become common in humans after jumping across the species barrier from animals.
The SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak of 2003 started in bats and transferred to the civet cat which passed it on to humans.
This new Chinese virus also causes severe acute respiratory infection.
Symptoms seem to start with a fever, followed by a dry cough and then, after a week, lead to shortness of breath and some patients needing hospital treatment.
There is no specific cure or vaccine.
Based on early information, it is believed that only a quarter of infected cases are “severe”, and the dead are mostly – though not exclusively – older people, some of whom have pre-existing conditions.
The Chinese authorities suspect a seafood market that “conducted illegal transactions of wild animals” was the source of the outbreak.
China’s inflation rate hit a 10-month high in February after Lunar New Year festivities drove up food prices.
Consumer prices rose 3.2% from a year earlier, with food prices up by 6%.
Inflation has been a hot political issue in China. There have been concerns that if consumer prices rise too much, it may prompt Beijing to tighten monetary policies, which in turn may hurt China’s growth.
However, analysts said the latest data was unlikely to prompt any such moves.
They argued that the price growth was driven mainly by the Lunar New Year celebrations, which are traditionally associated with an increase in consumer spending.
“We expect limited market and policy impact as investors and officials understand the Lunar New Year distortions quite well,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts said in a note after the data was released over the weekend.
“Though policymakers should be wary of inflation later this year with economic growth recovery, it’s too early to call for significant monetary tightening at present,” they said.
After years of experiencing a blistering pace of growth, China has seen its economic expansion slow in recent times.
China’s inflation rate hit a 10-month high in February after Lunar New Year festivities drove up food prices
In 2012, China grew at a pace of 7.8%, its weakest performance in 13 years.
Prompted by slowing growth, China has taken various steps over the past months to spur a fresh wave of economic growth.
It cut interest rates twice last year, to bring down the cost of borrowing for consumers and businesses. It also lowered the amount of money that banks need to keep in reserves in an attempt to boost lending in the country.
On the investment front, Beijing approved infrastructure projects worth more than $150 billion.
Some analysts said that if China continues to pursue easy monetary policies, consumer prices may rise further in the latter half of the year.
“If monetary policy remains at the current loose stance, consumer price index in 2013 will likely be much higher than the 3.5% target set in the National People’s Congress,” said Zhang Zhiwei, an economist with Nomura.
China set a target of 3.5% inflation rate for the current year at the National People’s Congress, its annual parliamentary session, last week.
However, in his final appearance at the congress, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao warned that keeping prices in check will remain a key challenge for the policymakers.
“There are relatively big inflationary pressures this year, mainly because there are pressures on China’s land, labor, agricultural products and services,” Wen Jiabao said.
“And major countries are stepping up loose monetary policy, so we can’t overlook imported inflationary pressures.”
Hundreds of millions of people are celebrating Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year, the most important annual holiday in much of Asia.
New Year began in China at midnight, with firework displays and family gatherings.
It marked the opening of the year of the snake, taking over from the dragon.
In China, an estimated 200 million people have travelled to be with their families in what is considered the biggest mass human migration on Earth.
The holiday will continue throughout the week, with government offices and businesses shut down.
The snake has a mixed reputation in China. It is associated with wisdom, beauty and intelligence but also pride and anger.
Residents of Beijing braved freezing temperatures on Saturday night to let off fireworks, which are believed to ward off evil spirits.
However, the displays in the capital were reportedly more muted than in previous years, starting later at night than usual and ending earlier on Sunday morning.
The city authorities had asked people to set off fewer fireworks because of dangerous levels of air pollution and a high number of smoggy days during the past month.
There was a sharp reduction in the sale of fireworks in the city, with 260,000 boxes purchased in the five days leading up to the new year, a 37% drop compared with last year, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Hundreds of millions of people are celebrating Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year, the most important annual holiday in much of Asia
City environmental bureau readings showed 2.5 microgram pollution levels well above the 200 mark in most parts of the city at midday on Sunday, but these were well below the readings of 700 seen in January. Last year’s fireworks sent pollution levels as high as 1,500.
Saturday evening also saw an anticipated 700 million people watch state television’s annual TV gala, a variety performance show in which Celine Dion sang her theme tune from the movie Titanic.
According to one well-known Chinese songwriter, My Heart Will Go On is one of two English songs that are well known in China. The other is Happy Birthday.
The gala’s producers were ordered to make the show a more low-key affair, in the wake of the new leadership’s recent crackdown on corruption and official extravagance.
Before Saturday’s celebrations began, Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, who will become president in March, paid a visit to subway construction workers in Beijing to thank them for their service.
“Migrant workers have been the labor force behind China’s reform and opening up… so we must look after you properly,” he said.
“I hope the construction firm has organized some new year entertainment for you so you can have a happy holiday.”
Premier Wen Jiabao, who steps down in March, meanwhile celebrated the evening with victims of earthquakes and landslides in western China, state TV reported.
In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou handed out traditional red envelopes containing money – in this case one Taiwanese dollar ($0.03) – to people at a temple in Taipei.
Fireworks were also let off in Sydney.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard wished the 900,000 Australians of Chinese descent a “healthy and prosperous Year of the Snake” on Twitter.
Chinese New Year falls on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar
There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig
Exact origins of the Chinese zodiac are unknown, but common folklore has it that these are the 12 animals to reach Heaven in a race
Recent nake years are 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989 and 2001
Millions of people across the world are preparing to celebrate Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year, the most important annual holiday in much of Asia.
Chinese New Year begins on Sunday, when the new moon is seen in the sky.
In the Chinese zodiac, this year will be the year of the snake, taking over from the dragon of 2012.
In China, an estimated 200 million people are travelling to be with their families in what is considered the biggest mass human migration on Earth.
Vast crowds of people have passed through railway stations, airports and bus stations onto crowded transport, many of them making journeys of thousands of miles, sometimes lasting several days.
Migrant workers in China often only have one holiday a year in which to visit their home towns, and will be taking the money they have saved back to their families.
“For Chinese, the most important thing is to be with family. Family always comes first,” Jin Yuan, a 34-year-old worker in Beijing told Reuters.
“No matter how busy I am, I must go home. That is why so many people in Beijing are travelling home for the Lunar New Year.”
Vietnamese media said tens of thousands of people were also on the move there.
Markets and shops across the region have been selling red and gold decorations – colors considered lucky – for the past few weeks, bearing messages wishing good fortune and prosperity.
Chinese New Year begins on Sunday, when the new moon is seen in the sky
“Tet is an important event and the house must be decorated,” said Dam Duc Thong, a shopper in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, using the Vietnamese name for the holiday.
“I buy these ornaments with hope to bring good luck to my family.”
Traditional foods associated with long life or good luck are a key part of lunar new year festivities.
“I’m slicing the rice cake so that people can make rice noodle soup during the holidays,” said Oh Jung-sook, a 72-year-old rice cake seller in the South Korean capital, Seoul.
“People say that eating rice noodle soup can keep them healthy, age one more year and have no unfortunate events for the family throughout the year.”
The new year is traditionally brought in with fireworks and firecrackers, but residents of Beijing have been asked to set off fewer this year, in an attempt to minimize additional pollution in the frequently smog-bound city.
A truck carrying fireworks has exploded on an elevated highway in Henan province, central China, killing at least five people and causing part of the road to collapse, state media report.
The blast, which destroyed an 80 m (262 ft) section of road, took place on the G30 expressway in Henan province.
China National Radio had put the number of dead at 26 but the report appeared to have been removed from websites.
Several vehicles were reported to have tumbled off the road.
Witnesses said some cars were thrown off by the force of the blast, the cause of which was not immediately clear.
Six vehicles were retrieved from the wreckage, Xinhua said, while search and rescue efforts were continuing at the site. Eight people had been injured, the agency said.
Footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed rescuers digging through rubble. The channel said 10 trucks had been found under the bridge.
A truck carrying fireworks has exploded on an elevated highway in Henan province, central China, killing at least five people and causing part of the road to collapse
Images posted on microblogging sites showed wrecked trucks and debris, as well as a collapsed section of highway.
One photo showed a truck perched precariously at the broken edge of the carriageway.
Fireworks are traditionally set off in China to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which is just over a week away. There are frequently reports of accidents as they are being made, stored or transported.
Official statistics show that in 2011, more than 60,000 people were killed on roads in China. The deaths are often blamed on inadequate training, poor quality vehicles or on drivers ignoring safety instructions.
Earlier this month, China halted plans to introduce tougher penalties for traffic offences, following a public outcry.
The rules imposed penalty points for motorists who drove through amber traffic lights, with a driving ban after two offences, as well as increasing penalties for speeding, drinking and driving and using a mobile phone while behind the wheel.
But there were widespread complaints that drivers stopping abruptly at lights were ultimately causing more accidents.
The government said it was reconsidering its traffic policies.
A video clip showing a four-year-old Chinese boy forced by his father to run around and do push-ups in the snow, wearing only his underpants, has sparked outrage after was posted on internet.
Filmed in New York on Chinese New Year’s Eve, the footage shows a man identified only as “eagle daddy” stripping his son Ho Yide to his underwear and forcing him to endure temperatures of -13 degrees Celsius (8 F).
As he stands shivering in the cold, the boy is seen pleading with his father: “Please give me a hug!”
Ho Yide looks around as he runs after his father filming him and nearly slips as he clenches his small fists bracing himself against the cold.
A four-year-old Chinese boy was forced by his father to run around and do push-ups in the snow, wearing only his underpants
After running around for five minutes, Ho Yide is then encouraged to do a push-up on the snowy ground.
The little boy also asks for his mother, whose voice can later be heard later laughing and encouraging him to ensure the bitterly cold experience.
In comments posted by “eagle daddy” online it states his son was born several months early and doctors said that he might suffer developmental difficulties.
To counter this, “eagle daddy” came up with a strict education plan for his son to help him grow up healthy.
The video has been viewed by tens of thousands of people on various video-sharing websites and has caused outrage.
One user wrote: “I think your brain froze when you were four. Or were you even made to do run in snow almost naked when you were four?”
While another said: “This is so mean. It’s just so irresponsible! That boy poor looks like he wants a passerby to rescue him.”
The father’s personal assistant, surnamed Xin, told AFP Ho Yide was on holiday with his family in New York during the Lunar New Year holiday last month.
“The child agreed and before the run, he did half an hour of slow running to warm up,” she said by phone.
“This child has received all sorts of forms of training since he was small. When he was one, he started swimming in water that was 21 degrees Celsius.”
She said that the boy was born prematurely with several health problems including water in the brain that prompted doctors to say he may have cerebral palsy.
Miss Xin said Ho Yide’s father was not concerned about the negative backlash the video had received.
“He says he doesn’t care what others say… that the fact that the child lived showed that he has tenacious vitality,” she said.