Chinese authorities have confirmed that a new strain of coronavirus has been passed from person to person, sparking fresh fears of a global epidemic.
- The total number of worldwide cases of the virus is 222
- There is no vaccine for the new virus
- Nationalist newspaper Global Times has urged the Chinese Government not to cover up the outbreak, as it did with SARS
China’s National Health Commission said the new virus, which causes pneumonia, had spread to new cities and had infected some medical staff, the country’s official Xinhua news agency said.
Xinhua reported that Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert and head of the health commission team investigating the outbreak, had confirmed that two cases of infection in China’s Guangdong Province were due to human-to-human transmission.
The outbreak, which began in the city of Wuhan, has now spread to other cities including the capital Beijing and Shanghai.
Five new cases were confirmed in Beijing and 14 more in Guangdong province. A new case was reported in Shanghai, bringing the number of known cases worldwide to 222.
On Monday, South Korea also reported a new case of the virus involving a Chinese traveller from Wuhan. Thailand has reported two confirmed cases of the virus, both of whom were Chinese tourists from Wuhan.
Japan also confirmed one case of a Japanese citizen who visited Wuhan.
The number of cases has more than tripled and three people are known to have died.
The Australian Department of Health had earlier said in a statement it was aware of the outbreak and was watching developments closely, but said there was no need for alarm in Australia.
China’s President Xi Jinping said curbing the outbreak and saving lives was now the top priority.
“People’s lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed,” he was quoted as saying by state television.
There is no vaccine for the new virus.
Adding to the difficulties of containing the virus, hundreds of millions of Chinese people will be travelling domestically and abroad during the Lunar New Year holiday that starts this week.
Authorities around the globe, including in the United States and many Asian countries, have stepped up screening of travellers from Wuhan.
Specialist in infectious disease epidemics and Wellcome Trust global health charity director Sir Jeremy Farrar said there was a need to be vigilant.
“Wuhan is a major hub and with travel being a huge part of the fast approaching Chinese New Year, the concern level must remain high,” he said.
“There is more to come from this outbreak.”
The virus belongs to the same family of coronaviruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002-03 outbreak that also started in China.
Its symptoms include fever and difficulty in breathing, which are similar to many other respiratory diseases and pose complications for screening efforts.
Virus spreads beyond China’s borders
South Korea confirmed its first case, a 35-year-old Chinese national who had travelled from Wuhan, the fourth patient reported outside China.
All the overseas cases involve people from Wuhan, or who recently visited the city.
A report by London Imperial College’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis estimated that by January 12 there were 1,723 cases in Wuhan City with onset of related symptoms. Chinese health authorities have not commented directly on the report.
“This outbreak is extremely concerning. Uncertainty and gaps remain, but it is now clear that there is person-to-person transmission,” Sir Jeremy said.
The World Health Organisation said on Monday that “an animal source” appeared most likely to be the primary source of the outbreak and that some “limited human-to-human transmission” occurred between close contacts.
Shares in pharmaceutical firms and mask makers in China surged Monday because of the outbreak.
“Who knows how many people who have been to Wuhan may be unaware that they have already been infected?,” said one commentator on Chinese social media platform Weibo
Many of the initial cases of the coronavirus were linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, which has been closed as authorities investigate.
The state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial the Government needed to disclose all information and not repeat the mistakes made with SARS.
Chinese officials covered up the SARS outbreak for weeks before a growing death toll and rumours forced them to reveal the epidemic.
“We have made great strides in medicine, social affairs management and public opinion since 2003,” the editorial said.
“Concealment would be a serious blow to the government’s credibility and might trigger greater social panic.”