The worst fears of a viral epidemic that echo the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003 are closer to being realised. It is still not clear whether the Sars-like coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan is as dangerous. But the spread of the infection, which causes pneumonia, and now confirmation of human contagion, leave no room to hope for the best without preparing for the worst. The approaching Lunar New Year celebration is no excuse for that. The mass movement of tens of millions and increased cross-border travel could exacerbate the spread. We need an emergency response before the threat goes any further. It is of paramount importance the highest authorities convey Hong Kong’s need to be on full alert. With the number of confirmed and suspected cases on the mainland growing, President Xi Jinping has taken command, ordering top priority for efforts to prevent and control spread of the disease ahead of the Spring Festival holiday. His intervention is timely, given the instinct of mainland officials to play down the seriousness of bad news or even cover it up instead of preparing for the worst – the Sars outbreak that led to 299 deaths in Hong Kong being an example. Beijing’s top political law and order body reinforced Xi’s message, warning cadres of severe penalties for withholding information about an outbreak that began at least nearly two months ago. We trust officials heed Xi’s call. It remains to be seen if it has come in time. Cover up Wuhan virus and be shamed for eternity, Chinese officials warned In Hong Kong, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee conveyed the right sense of urgency in raising the alert three weeks ago. Questions remain whether there is room for more prevention measures, better liaison with the mainland and more transparency. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung should lose no time in reconsidering the decision not to require high-speed rail passengers from Wuhan to complete health declaration forms, as air passengers have to, because this might lead to the gathering of crowds at the terminus and increased risk of infection. We cannot afford to be playing catch-up in prevention and control, as happened during the painful Sars experience. Given revelations of the recent course of the current outbreak on the mainland, there has to be a worry about previous transparency. The absolute priority now has to be protection of health and lives. China’s international image is at stake. The last thing it needs is to again be seen as the culprit for an epidemic, blamed by the whole world for deliberately trying to hide it. Xi’s instruction is a wake-up call to officials about their moral and professional duty. In Hong Kong, we must expect that asymptomatic infected people will get through border screening undetected. But officials must maintain a sense of urgency in putting in place measures that minimise the possibility.