Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday said government and health care specialists must mobilize quickly to fight a mysterious viral illness because the massive number of travelers celebrating the Lunar New Year would make the disease hard to contain.
The novel coronavirus, which causes a pneumonialike illness, started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The number of cases has jumped from 45 on Friday to more than 200, officials said.
The head of Beijing’s team of health specialists said Monday that human-to-human transmission had been confirmed. The development raises the risk that the virus could spread quickly and widely.
“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” Mr. Xi said in his first public statement on the outbreaks.
Beijing and cities in southern China have reported cases of the novel coronavirus, according to state media reports. Shanghai confirmed a case Monday, Reuters reported.
The Geneva-based World Health Organization has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday to determine whether China’s outbreaks should be classified as a global health crisis, as it did for the Ebola outbreak in Congo, the Zika virus in the Americas in 2016 and the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Doctors have diagnosed five novel coronavirus cases in Beijing and 14 in the southern province of Guangdong. The third death from infection was reported this weekend. Of the 218 cases diagnosed, 198 were in Wuhan.
Suspected cases have been reported in other parts of China, including Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
Four cases of the coronavirus have been reported outside of China: two in Thailand, one in Japan and one in South Korea.
China first reported the viral outbreak in late December. Scientists later suspected that a new coronavirus was the cause of the pneumonia outbreak.
Coronaviruses can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). They can infect animals and people and can spread through coughing, sneezing or contact with an infected person.
The outbreak initially raised concerns about the highly contagious SARS virus, which killed hundreds of people in 2002 and 2003, but public health officials ruled it out as the cause. They also ruled out Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), seasonal flu, avian flu and adenovirus.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters last week that public health officials are particularly concerned that the new coronavirus looks genetically similar to SARS and MERS.
Most of those infected with the new coronavirus had been exposed to seafood and animals from a large market in Wuhan. The market shut down Jan. 1 for cleaning and disinfection.
Although Chinese officials have reported more than 200 coronavirus cases, London researchers say the number of infections is probably much higher.
In a paper published Friday, researchers from the MRC Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis estimated that the number of cases in Wuhan was 1,723 — 1,500 more than what officials reported.
Also Friday, federal health officials began screening travelers from Wuhan in New York, which has direct flights to the Chinese city. Screenings began Saturday at San Francisco and Los Angeles airports.
Officials expect about 5,000 travelers from Wuhan to pass through U.S. airports in the next couple of weeks. The Chinese Lunar New Year, which begins Saturday, adds to the complication of preventing the virus from spreading through international travel.
Despite the precautionary travel screenings, the CDC said, the public health threat of the coronavirus in the U.S. is low.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at email@example.com.
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