A World Health Organization (WHO) emergency panel will meet this week to discuss a new SARS-like virus that has spread beyond China and that officials in Beijing have said is contagious between humans.
The new coronavirus strain, first discovered in the central city of Wuhan, has caused alarm because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
SARS originated in southern China in 2002 and spread to Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world, infecting thousands of people. More than 800 people died.
The total number of people diagnosed with the new virus has risen to 218, with cases confirmed in Beijing, Shanghai and the southern province of Guangdong province. A third person died in Wuhan, the local health commission said.
The WHO panel will meet in Geneva on Wednesday to determine whether to declare the outbreak “a public health emergency of international concern” – a rare designation only used for the gravest epidemics.
WHO said earlier that an animal source seemed to be “the most likely primary source,” with “some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts.”
A seafood market in Wuhan is believed to be the centre of the outbreak.
But Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at China’s National Health Commission who helped expose the scale of the SARS outbreak, said patients could contract the new virus without having visited the city.
“Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission,” he said in an interview with CCTV.
In Guangdong, two patients were infected by family members who visited Wuhan, while 14 medical staff helping with coronavirus patients had also been infected, Zhong said.
Zhong predicted an increase of viral pneumonia cases during this week’s Lunar New Year holiday – when hundreds of millions of people travel to visit family – but expressed confidence in curbing the spread of the virus, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday.
Over the next week, 2,131 flights will depart Wuhan for other Chinese cities, according to the Flightradar24 website. A further 205 are headed for overseas destinations, the most frequent of which is Thailand, which will receive 54 flights in the January 20-27 period, the website said.
Scientists with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London warned in a paper published on Friday that the number of cases in Wuhan was likely to be closer to 1,700, much higher than the official figure.