China has confirmed human-to-human transmission in the outbreak of a new SARS-like virus as the number of cases soared and authorities Tuesday said a fourth person had died.
The news came as the World Health Organization said it would consider declaring an international public health emergency over the outbreak.
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The coronavirus, which has spread to three other Asian countries and infected more than 200 people in China, has caused alarm because of its genetic similarities to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
READ: Major SARS-like outbreak feared amid third death outside of China
The discovery of human-to-human transmission comes as hundreds of millions of people are crisscrossing the country in packed buses, trains and planes this week to celebrate the Lunar New Year with relatives.
Enhanced screening measures including fever checks have been set up at airports in Australia, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, and the United States, with particular attention on arrivals from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
Health authorities there, where a seafood market has been identified as the center of the outbreak, said Tuesday that an 89-year-old man became the fourth person to die from the virus and that 15 medical staff had been infected.
A second case was also confirmed in Shanghai on Tuesday, while five people have been diagnosed with the illness in Beijing.
The virus has also reached Japan, Thailand and South Korea, with four people hospitalized after visiting Wuhan.
A man showing symptoms of the disease who had traveled to the Chinese city has been put in isolation in Australia as health officials await test results, authorities said Tuesday.
Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at China’s national health commission, confirmed that the virus was being transmitted between humans, state media reported late Monday.
The WHO had previously identified animals as the likely primary source, but had warned of “some limited human-to-human transmission.”
Zhong told CCTV that patients can contract the virus without having visited Wuhan.
He also said 14 medical staff had been infected but it was not clear if he was referring to the Wuhan cases.
In southern Guangdong province, two patients were infected by family members who visited Wuhan, he told CCTV.
The WHO said a key emergency committee would meet Wednesday to determine whether to declare an international public health emergency.
The agency has only used the rare label a handful of times, including during the H1N1—or swine flu—pandemic of 2009 and the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016.
The number of people hit by the new coronavirus is expected to rise, especially with increased monitoring and testing for the disease.
Doctors at the University of Hong Kong released a study on Tuesday estimating that there have been 1,343 cases of the new virus in Wuhan.
Scientists at Imperial College in London said last week the number was likely closer to 1,700.
The Chinese government announced Tuesday it was classifying the outbreak in the same category as SARS, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the disease and the potential to implement quarantine measures on travel.
China’s President Xi Jinping said that the virus must be “resolutely contained” and said information must be released “in a timely manner,” in his first public comments on the outbreak on Monday.
The Communist government was accused of covering up the SARS outbreak in 2003 but some foreign experts have praised the swift release of information on this new virus.
“The speed of response is testimony to improved global preparedness,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of British health care foundation Wellcome Trust.
“But we must not be complacent, there is still much to be done to ensure countries across the world are protecting people from epidemic threats of diseases known and unknown,” he said.
Asia stepped up its defenses Tuesday against the new SARS-like virus, introducing mandatory screenings at airports of arrivals from high-risk areas of China as authorities move to head off a billowing regional health crisis.
From Bangkok to Hong Kong and Seoul to Sydney, authorities have gone onto high-alert over the new coronavirus, following China’s confirmation of the first case of human-to-human transmission of the deadly illness.
Four people have died in China while scores more have been infected with the virus.
Thai authorities have introduced mandatory thermal scans of passengers arriving from high-risk areas of China at its airports in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Krabi.
Those passengers will be screened “without exemption,” Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said in a statement, adding if they exhibit signs of fever they will be quarantined for 24 hours for monitoring.
A quarter of all international flights from Wuhan—the epicenter of the deadly virus—arrive in Thailand.
Around 1,300 passengers are expected each day from Wuhan over Chinese New Year, which starts this weekend.
Thailand is desperate to avoid a damaging outbreak during peak tourist season.
Two Chinese arrivals in Thailand have been found with the new strain of the virus--one of whom has since been discharged from hospital and has returned to China.
In Hong Kong, the southern Chinese city where memories of a 2002-3 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed hundreds still haunt the city, authorities said they were on “extreme high alert.”
“We are... preparing for the worst. We have not lowered our guard,” Hong Kong’s number two leader, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, told reporters.
Hong Kong airport already routinely screens the temperatures of all passengers arriving at the airport, one of the world’s busiest.
Those arriving from Wuhan have to fill out health declarations and face fines and up to six months jail if they fail to declare symptoms.
On Monday, hospital authorities said they would monitor anyone with a fever who bad been to Hubei province, where Wuhan is located.
Taiwan, meanwhile, went onto its second-highest alert level for those traveling to and from Wuhan, advising visitors to avoid visiting any live poultry markets while screening has been stepped up at airports.
China’s vast land borders with its neighbors have also come under scrutiny.
Vietnam’s health ministry has ordered more border checks as “the risks of infection are high” given the daily cross-border flow of goods and people.
As fears over the reach of the outbreak mount, Australian health officials said they have restricted a man to his home after he returned from Wuhan showing symptoms of the virus -- the country’s first suspected case.
The United Arab Emirates said it has made sure its airports and ports are ready to handle coronavirus cases.
Tourism-linked stocks sank in Hong Kong on Tuesday with investors spooked by confirmation that a deadly virus in China can be transmitted between humans, while confidence was also hit by Moody’s decision to downgrade the city’s credit rating.
The Hang Seng Index has enjoyed a healthy run-up over the past six weeks, thanks to the China-US trade pact, signs of an improving global outlook and looser central bank monetary policies.
But the optimism has given way to fears about an outbreak of a virus that resembles SARS, a disease that killed hundreds in China and Hong Kong and hammered the local equities market.
The new coronavirus strain, which has spread from the mainland city of Wuhan, has infected more than 200 people. On Tuesday, authorities said a fourth person had died from it.
A top scientist at China’s National Health Commission said the strain has now been found to pass between humans, a major worry days before the Lunar New Year holiday, which sees hundreds of millions of people travel across the country.
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