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The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, still preliminarily named 2019-nCoV, that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan now registers almost 8,000 laboratory-confirmed cases in 22 countries, as of January 30. More than 98% of those cases and all of the 170 casualties were reported in China.

Although the death rate of 2.1% is far lower than that of the SARS, 9.6%, and MERS, 35%, outbreaks, the speed of the spread already outpaces that of the former epidemics. A WHO expert committee meeting on Thursday (January 30) will assess once more whether a state of global emergency should be declared.

Many countries like the US, the UK, Japan, and Germany are becoming increasingly concerned about their citizens in China and are planning to evacuate them quickly. However, travel within Hubei province and other epicentres of the outbreak to the airports is difficult due to the transportation ban, and preparations must be made to quarantine the repatriates to avoid possible further spread in their respective home countries. UK government officials proposed a 14-day quarantine, raising questions of personal rights, let alone the general effectiveness of such measures.

The quarantine and transportation bans in major cities in China, especially in Wuhan where the virus originated, pose serious logistical challenges, but experts disagree on whether such measures will be effective or only slow down the spread without reducing the number of incidents, while at the same time complicating the supply of medical equipment and food.

Assessment of quarantines after the SARS outbreak in 2003 showed unconvincing effectiveness, especially due to low compliance rates. It was argued that quarantines were not necessary to control the outbreak, however, SARS was not significantly infectious before the symptomatic illness was observed, but initial evidence suggests that people who are infected with 2019-nCoV, similar to influenza infections, can spread the virus before becoming symptomatic.

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Further complicating matters, several million people allegedly left the city before travel restrictions were imposed, hinting at the fact that the response was too slow. Instead of focusing on blocking off the affected cities, traditional public health measures such as identifying infections, monitoring contacts, observing the usual precautions against infections such as frequent hand washing and avoiding close personal contact, and the availability of rapid medical help might be able to help to contain further spread of 2019-nCoV.