China on Sunday expanded drastic travel restrictions to contain a viral epidemic that has killed 56 people and infected nearly 2,000, as the United States, France and Japan prepared to evacuate their citizens from a quarantined city at the outbreak's epicentre.
China has locked down the hard-hit province of Hubei in the country's centre in an unprecedented operation affecting tens of millions of people to slow the spread of the respiratory illness.
The virus's ability to spread appears to be "getting stronger" though it is "not as powerful as SARS", top Chinese health officials said at a press conference, adding that their knowledge of it is limited.
The previously unknown virus has caused global concern because of its similarity to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pathogen, which killed hundreds across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
Outside the epicentre, four cities -- including Beijing and Shanghai, and the eastern province of Shandong -- announced bans on long-distance buses from entering or leaving their borders, a move that will affect millions of people travelling over the Lunar New Year holiday.
The popular southern province of Guangdong, Jiangxi in the centre, and three cities made it mandatory for residents to wear faces masks in public.
Originating in Hubei's capital of Wuhan, the virus has spread throughout China and around the world -- with cases confirmed in around a dozen countries as distant as the United States.
The US State Department said Sunday it was arranging a flight from Wuhan to San Francisco for consulate staff and other Americans in the city.
The flight is on Tuesday, it said in an email to Americans in China that warned of "extremely limited" capacity for private citizens.
France's government and the French carmaker PSA also said they were formulating plans to evacuate staff and families, who will be quarantined in a city in a neighbouring province.
Japan is coordinating with the Chinese government to swiftly evacuate its citizens, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.
South Korea's consulate in Wuhan said it was conducting an online poll of its citizens there to gauge demand for a chartered flight out.
- Fear in Wuhan -
Instead of New Year revelry, Wuhan has been seized by an eerie calm that deepened on Sunday as new restrictions banned most road traffic in the metropolis of 11 million.
Loudspeakers broke the silence by offering tips slathered with bravado.
"Do not believe in rumours. Do not spread rumours. If you feel unwell, go to the hospital in time," the message said.
"Wuhan is a city that dares to face difficulties and keeps overcoming them," the female voice added, mentioning the deadly 2002-03 SARS epidemic and 1998 Yangtze River flooding.
The health emergency has overwhelmed Wuhan's hospitals with patients, prompting authorities to send hundreds of medical reinforcements, including military doctors, and start construction on two field hospitals.
With non-essential vehicles banned from the road, volunteers stepped up to drive sick fellow citizens to hospitals.
"There has to be someone who does this," Zhang Lin, 48, told AFP journalists as he waited for a patient to emerge from a clinic for the drive back home in nearly deserted streets.
Some foreigners in Wuhan expressed deep concern, saying they feared going outside even though their food supplies were running low.
"We want to be evacuated as soon as possible, because either the virus, the hunger or the fear will kill us," Mashal Jamalzai, a political science student from Afghanistan at Central China Normal University, told AFP.
The outbreak is suspected to have originated in a Wuhan market where animals including rats, snakes and hedgehogs were reportedly sold as exotic food.
China said Sunday it was banning all trade in wildlife until the emergency is over, but conservationists complain that China has previously failed to deliver on pledges to get tough.
- Another Disneyland closes -
Health officials said the virus has since become transmissible between humans.
"From what we see now, this disease is indeed ... not as powerful as SARS," said Gao Fu, head of China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, at a press briefing in Beijing.
However, it also appears that the "spreading ability of the virus is getting stronger," said Ma Xiaowei, head of China's national health commission.
Shanghai on Sunday reported its first death -- an 88-year-old man who had pre-existing health problems. The government says most deaths involved the elderly or people already suffering from other ailments.
Fearing a repeat of SARS, China has dramatically scaled back celebrations and travel associated with the New Year holiday, which began Friday, while tourist sites like Beijing's Forbidden City and a section of the Great Wall have closed as a precaution.
In Hong Kong, Disneyland announced Sunday it had closed as a precaution after the city declared an emergency to combat the crisis. Shanghai's Disneyland park had already closed Saturday.
President Xi Jinping said Friday at a Communist Party leadership meeting on the crisis that China faced "the grave situation of an accelerating spread" of the virus, calling for stepped-up prevention.