Zhong Nanshan, head of the National Health Commission, said on Monday patients may have contracted the new virus without having visited the central city of Wuhan where it was discovered before spreading across China and reaching three other Asian nations.
“Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission,” he said in an interview with China’s CCTV state broadcaster.
Zhong said two people in Guangdong province in southern China caught the disease from family members who had visited Wuhan.
He added that 14 medical personnel helping with coronavirus patients have also been infected.
Human-to-human transmission could make the virus spread more quickly and widely.
Alarm in the region
The new coronavirus strain has caused alarm because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
The total number of people diagnosed with the latest strain of the virus rose to 218, according to CCTV.
South Korea on Monday reported its first case – a 35-year-old woman who flew in from Wuhan.
Thailand and Japan previously confirmed a total of three cases – all of whom had visited the Chinese city.
Meanwhile, a third person died in Wuhan, according to the local health commission.
Experts believe the epidemic “can still be controlled”, the National Health Commission said on Sunday.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the new cases in China were the result of “increased searching and testing for [the virus] among people sick with respiratory illness”.
Wuhan authorities said they have installed infrared thermometers at airports, and railway and coach stations across the city. Passengers with fever were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions.
State TV footage showed medical staff working inside an isolation ward at a Wuhan hospital in hazmat suits.
In Hong Kong, health officials said they were expanding enhanced checks on arrivals to include anyone coming in from Hubei province, not just its capital, Wuhan. More than 100 people are being monitored in the city.
Passengers are also being screened at some airports in Thailand and the United States.
Chinese state media moved to calm the mood as discussion swelled on social media about the coronavirus spreading to other Chinese cities.
Weighing in on the matter for the first time, China’s President Xi Jinping said on Monday that safeguarding people’s lives should be given “top priority” and that the spread of the epidemic “should be resolutely contained”, according to CCTV.
Xi said it was necessary to “release information on the epidemic in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation”, and ensure people have a “stable and peaceful Spring Festival”, the broadcaster said.