We're heading into Lunar New Year, which this year falls earlier than normal, on Saturday, Jan. 25. That means the biggest human migration is under way, with people expected to make 2.9 billion trips to celebrate the "Spring Festival" with family. In China alone, 400 million people will be on the move.
This is huge cause for concern here in Hong Kong, and for China. An as-yet-unnamed virus has killed four people and produced 14 cases in Guangdong Province, just across the border from me, with five patients afflicted in Beijing, two in Shanghai and 270 in Hubei Province, mainly in its capital, Wuhan.
Wuhan is a city of 9.8 million people, according to the city government, which would make it the biggest city in the United States. It's seventh in China, and pretty central for the populated eastern half of the country. A good epicenter if there ever was one.
Patients have already traveled from Wuhan to South Korea, Japan and Thailand, taking the disease with them. Australia, where a Wuhan man is in isolation after showing symptoms, and Singapore have intensified screening of passengers. The Philippines is testing several patients.
Investors are responding. The CSI 300 of the largest stocks in Shanghai and Shenzhen has sold off heavily on Tuesday, closing down 1.7%, while the Chinese yuan has lost around 0.5% against the dollar. Here in Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index has been crushed, down 2.8% at the close. European stocks have also been afflicted, particularly luxury-goods companies such as LVMH (LVMUY) , Hermes (HESAY) and Burberry (BURBY) , which all make significant sales in China.
The Spring Festival (best called Lunar rather than Chinese New Year since it's celebrated in places like Vietnam and Korea) marks the traditional end of winter. It has not been cold here in Hong Kong, and neither was it last year. Yesterday was the "Major Cold" day in the zodiac calendar, supposed to be the frostiest of the season. It was around 65F.
So we haven't really had the cold snap that, to my non-scientific mind, might kill off a lot of these bugs. The over-prescription of antibiotics by Chinese doctors, and the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed, seems to augment the severity of diseases emerging from this part of the world.
It's fitting that we're heading into the Year of the Rat. In November, China declared four cases of the plague. That had me digging for my high school history text books, because the only thing I remember about the plague is that it caused the Black Death, which wiped out one-third of Europe's population in the 1300s.
Turns out "the plague" is still a thing, and that there's not just one but two versions. You've got your bubonic plague, which is often deadly, and then there's pneumonic plague, which is even deadlier. Bubonic plague manifests with buboes, swellings in the groin or armpit that often turn black. Pneumonic plague is a later stage after it moves into the lungs, when it becomes highly infectious through coughing.
The cases of the plague (or plagues) were all in remote, rural Inner Mongolia. One herder caught it likely from his proximity to animals that carry it - it's the fleas on rats that spread the disease rather than the rats themselves - while the other three cases seem to have stemmed from eating wild animals. The authorities reported no fatalities.
It's likely that animals are also the source of the new SARS-like disease. Like SARS and MERS, the new strain is a coronavirus, a family of viruses with cells that appear to have crowns around them under the microscope. Coronaviruses cause a hefty chunk of common colds.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) present another level of threat entirely. The SARS outbreak in Hong Kong and China killed 813 people in 2002 and 2003, according to the World Health Organization, and likely spread from bats to civet cats and then to humans. MERS likely spread from bats into camels and then in 2012 to humans, with 858 associated deaths, per the WHO.
The WHO is forming an emergency committee on the new outbreak, which will meet for the first time on Wednesday. This will "ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern."
The answer is "Yes." About 7 million Chinese citizens went overseas during the 2019 Lunar New Year. That's a lot of potential vectors to take the mystery disease into new nations, while domestic travel could swiftly spread it around China's 1.4 billion population. So the other portion of the WHO meeting, to come up with recommendations on how to manage "Novel Coronavirus 2019-nCoV", will be vital.
President Xi Jinping has ordered "resolute efforts" to curb the new virus. The Communist Party is getting serious when it gets resolute.
That appears to involve screening with infrared thermometers. There's no cure or inoculation against the new disease, which is confirmed now to spread between people as well as from animals. One patient in Wuhan has infected 14 health workers.
We're hoping that the severity is not as great as SARS. The fatalities appear to have come in elderly people with existing health concerns. But we don't really know. I'm getting warnings from friends that include pieces of advice such as "Don't eat too many fried foods," since at the moment we just don't have a handle on the outbreak.
It will be vital to contain it over this holiday period. Let's hope the efforts of Chinese health officials and those internationally come off. Meantime, avoid Chinese shares until we have a handle on how to handle the mystery disease.