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Hong Kong: The coronavirus epidemic in China appears to have started from the cramped prison system, possibly at internment facilities in Xinjiang, according to media reports and social media posts.

China's Ministry of Justice officials on Friday said that more than 500 prisoners in five prisons in three provinces had contracted the virus which has so far sickened almost 80,000 people and killed more than 2,000 people, mostly in China.

Some 56 million people in central Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, have been placed under unprecedented lockdown.

David Brennan, a New York-based journalist tweeted, "Uighur groups have warned that China's 're-education' camps could become coronavirus hotspots. Xinjiang officials dismissed the concerns but @JewherIlham told me that China is unlikely to be transparent about the situation."

A human rights activist, Nicola Macbean, tweeted, "Unsurprisingly #COVID2019 now confirmed in Chinese prisons. With overcrowding, poor nutrition and healthcare this is not good. Worrying to think about the situation in #Xinjiang camps!"

China has faced international condemnation for rounding up an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic Turkic minorities in internment camps in Xinjiang, where rights groups say inmates endure political indoctrination and forced assimilation into the majority Han society.

Beijing says the facilities are "vocational training centres" necessary to combat terrorism through job training and teaching Mandarin.

Social media campaigns have been started under hashtags such as #VirusThreatInTheCamps and #WHO2Urumgi to urge the World Health Organisation (WHO) to send a delegation to Xinjiang.

The World Uyghur Congress tweeted, "The #coronavirus #COVID19 is spreading rapidly in cruise ships and prisons, where people are confined in close quarters. Millions of #Uyghurs detained in internment camps are at serious risk of infection. The CCP must #ClosetheCamps now, before it is too late."

Prisons across China had been ordered to step up monitoring of all prison guards and officers to "prevent the spread of the virus into prison premises". The Ministry of Justice had sent 28 teams to prisons across the country to ensure compliance, said a report by South China Morning Post.