The death toll from a new flu-like coronavirus in China rose to nine on Wednesday with 440 confirmed cases, Reuters reports, citing Chinese health officials.
Another 2,197 people who came into contact with infected people were isolated, with 765 so far released from observation, National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin was quoted as saying.
The official added that there was evidence that the virus was being spread through “respiratory transmission”.
“Recently there has been a big change in the number of cases, which is related to our deepening our understanding of the disease, improving diagnostic methods and optimizing the distribution of diagnostic kits,” said Li.
The Chinese government has been providing daily updates on the number of cases in a bid to head off public panic, as millions of people prepare to travel domestically and abroad for the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations starting this week.
“At present, during the Lunar New Year, the rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading and the difficulty of prevention and control,” Li warned, noting that the mutation of the virus could also bring further risks.
Fears of a pandemic similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that started in China and killed nearly 800 people in 2002-2003 have roiled global markets, with aviation and luxury goods stocks hit particularly hard and the Chinese yuan tumbling.
Li said there was as yet no evidence of “super-spreaders” capable of disseminating the virus more widely, as happened during the SARS outbreak, but authorities were already taking appropriate measures.
Fifteen medical personnel are among those infected in China. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. The viral infection can cause pneumonia and can be passed from person to person.
The new virus is adapting and mutating, underscoring the challenges for health authorities in controlling the outbreak, Gao Fu, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news briefing.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is due to hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak of the new coronavirus constitutes a global health emergency.
The virus, originating in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei at the end of last year, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Macao, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Though the origin of the virus has yet to be identified, WHO said the primary source was probably animal. Chinese officials have linked the outbreak to Wuhan’s seafood market.
In related news, Taiwan joined Australia in warning citizens to avoid travel to Wuhan.
“I want to call on our nationals please not to visit this region if not necessary,” Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen wrote on her Facebook page.
Tsai also ordered tour groups from Wuhan not to come to Taiwan for the time being.
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