A look at Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic

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Wuhan, the location of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, is the capital of China’s central Hubei province and home to 11 million people. To date, the epidemic has claimed the lives of more than 130 and has infected at least 5,974 globally, though most affected are in China.

The gateway to the Three Gorges Dam and located at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers, Wuhan has the largest inland port in China.

Wuhan became a site of conflict after the collapse of the Nationalist-Communist coalition in 1927 and became a key strategic city during the second Sino-Japanese war. Wuhan is now known as “the city of hundred lakes,” after it was taken by Communist forces in 1949.

The sprawling metropolis sits on a low-lying area prone to flooding. In 2016, torrential downpours caused metro stations and roads to flood, killing 14 people and causing damages worth $263 million. The city was again left underwater in June 2019, prompting the government to issue a red alert, and delaying the city’s high school entrance exam for the first time in over a decade.

Despite expensive flooding defenses, and a nationwide sponge city initiative that involves replacing impervious surfaces with features that soak up rain water to reduce the impact of the annual rainy season, Wuhan remains susceptible to frequent disasters.

Coronavirus is the latest disaster to hit the city.

The virus, which has captivated international media, has left millions trapped after transport to and from cities in the Hubei province were suspended in an attempt to curb the spread of infection. Travel bans have left people vulnerable as food, sanitizer, and mask supplies start to run out. Currently believed to have originated in Wuhan’s Huanan Seaford market, there are competing theories have emerged over the source of the outbreak.

The Huanan Seafood market was initially believed to be the source of the outbreak aftermarket workers developed flu-like symptoms, Chinese authorities reported. The market, a hub of animal trading, has since been pinpointed as the source of the virus after scientists reported that coronaviruses are carried by animals.

However, the academic Journal of Medical Virology alleged the coronavirus was transmitted to humans through snakes in a paper published on January 22. The paper said the virus is a combination of “the bat coronavirus and an origin-unknown coronavirus…suggesting the snake is the most probable wildlife reservoir,” after analyzing DNA sequences.

Wuhan’s Institute of Virology, however, has faced allegations that human error resulted in coronavirus being released from the research facility. The institute, which is located in the southern suburbs of Wuhan, researches the etiology, or origin, and epidemiology of emerging infectious diseases, including the study of influenza viruses, according to its website.

A paper, published by the institute in March 2016, recognized the bat origin of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-like coronaviruses, and the importance of animals in the transmission and emergence of the disease. In a later paper, published in 2018, the Institute again identified bats as a source of coronavirus, confirming the continued study of coronaviruses in Wuhan.

Unconfirmed reports have suggested coronavirus is a leaked biological weapon, with tweets and Facebook posts alleging a variety of conspiracy theories. The most popular claim that the virus was created in a laboratory and has been patented, or that coronavirus is a biological weapon created by the US government to increase demand for vaccines. None of these theories have been substantiated.

With a rising number of cases in Wuhan, Chinese authorities have faced allegations that they deliberately played down the extent of the outbreak.

In a live press conference on Sunday, epidemiology experts from the University of Hong Kong, Joseph Wu and Gabriel Leung, said data driven research showed that the number of infected could double every six days. This is because unlike SARS, the new coronavirus is infectious during the incubation period. Meaning, those infected do not immediately show any symptoms.

Leung said “this epidemic is growing at quite a fast rate and it’s accelerating,” and called for “draconian” measures to stem the spread of infection.

The report, which Leung said has been submitted to Beijing’s and Hong Kong’s authorities, and the World Health Organization, raised fears that the Chinese government has deliberately played down the extent of the outbreak. These fears were compounded when Canada-based artificial intelligence company BlueDot revealed that it’s epidemiology algorithm predicted the outbreak of coronavirus a week before the first cases were confirmed.

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