HONG KONG - Panic buyers in Hong Kong have descended on supermarkets to snap up toilet rolls as the government warned that online rumors of shortages were hampering the city's fight against a deadly coronavirus outbreak.
Videos obtained by AFP showed long queues of frantic shoppers packing trolleys with multiple packets of toilet rolls, with some arguments breaking out.
Rice and pasta have also become a popular target for panic buying.
The footage -- and photos of shelves emptied of toilet rolls -- sparked a call from the government for the public to halt panic buying.
"In response to various rumors recently that there are shortages of goods such as rice and toilet papers, leading to panic buying and even chaos, a government spokesman today expresses regret over the malicious act of spreading rumors when the city is fighting against the disease, and condemns those rumor mongers with evil intentions," the statement said.
While Hong Kong has closed most of its land borders to mainland China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, freight services have not been affected, the government said.
"There are sufficient stocks of staple food including rice and pastas. There is no need for the public to worry," the statement said.
Harold Yip, founder of Mil Mill, a Hong Kong-based waste paper recycling company, told AFP they received over 100 inquiries from members of the public about toilet paper on Wednesday alone.
RTHK news reported that toilet paper and rice at one supermarket in the district of Wanchai -- which had been fully restocked overnight -- were cleared within 30 minutes of the store opening on Thursday morning.
The supermarket chain Wellcome said rumors of shortages were unfounded.
The coronavirus has killed more than 550 people in China since spreading from the central city of Wuhan late last year.
Hong Kong now has 21 confirmed infections, including 1 patient who died.
The majority of those infected came from mainland China.
But in recent days there has been a spike in carriers with no history of travel to the mainland sparking fears local transmissions were growing.
The city's pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam has faced growing calls to close the border with China, a step she has been reluctant to take saying it would be economically damaging and discriminatory.
Her administration has gradually cut the number of land border crossings to just 2.
On Wednesday, she announced anyone arriving from the Chinese mainland from Saturday would face a mandatory 2-week quarantine.
While Hong Kong maintains close economic and cultural links to the Chinese mainland, as seething distrust of the authorities in Beijing permeates the city.
The 2003 outbreak of the SARS virus, which Beijing initially covered up, killed 299 people in Hong Kong and left lasting psychological scars on the densely populated city.
Lam already boasts record-low approval ratings after using riot police to quell 7 months of huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.