China‘s National Health Commission said on Wednesday that nine people had died from a new coronavirus and 440 people across 13 Chinese provinces had been confirmed to be infected and warned that the still-unidentified virus could mutate.
The number of cases of the infection, known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), is greater than the total of more than 300 reported earlier on Tuesday.
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The illness is transmitted via the respiratory tract and there “is the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease,” National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin said at a news conference in Beijing.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is holding an emergency meeting later on Wednesday to determine whether to declare a rare global public health emergency over the disease, which has also been confirmed in the United States, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
Macau, a former Portuguese colony that is now a semi-autonomous territory in China, on Wednesday reported its first confirmed case. The city is a huge draw for mainland tourists as the only place in China that allows gambling and authorities announced all casino staff had been ordered to wear face masks.
The Chinese government has classified the outbreak in the same category as the SARS epidemic, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the illness and the potential to implement quarantine measures on travel.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, noted that China was being more transparent about the virus than it was at the time of SARS, which ended up spreading to dozens of countries and killing some 800 people.
“China wants to be seen to be doing what it believes is the right thing,” he said. “It is starting to do what it can to rein in the disease, but it could be too little, too late.”
Scientists are still working to confirm the exact source of the virus, which has infected 440 people in 13 provinces and municipalities. China has said it can be passed from person to person, but animals are usually the origin of coronaviruses.
“We will step up research efforts to identify the source and transmission of the disease,” Li said.
The WHO was first notified of the Wuhan virus on December 31.
The infection is thought to have originated in a seafood market that also sold illegal wildlife meat, which has now been closed and sealed off.
Li Bin said that live animals were not being allowed to enter Wuhan.
This week, China celebrates the Lunar New Year, the most important event in the Chinese calendar when hundreds of millions of people travel across the country to celebrate with family. As mainland Chinese have become richer they have also begun to spend the holiday overseas.
On Wednesday, the authorities announced enhanced measures to contain the virus, including disinfection and ventilation at airports, train stations and shopping centres.
“When needed, temperature checks will also be implemented in key areas at crowded places,” the health commission said in a statement.
Wuhan has urged people to stay away in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.