The National Health Commission of China confirmed on Monday that the new type of coronavirus that has caused an outbreak of pneumonia in the country has been transmitted by direct contact between humans and infected some health workers, according to the official agency of Xinhua news. There could be a worldwide human infection.
The outbreak has spread to several cities in China, including Shanghai and Beijing, with a fourth case reported outside the country’s borders, authorities said.
President Xi Jinping said that slowing the outbreak and saving lives is a priority, because the number of patients more than tripled and a third person died.
In addition to the difficulties of containing it, hundreds of millions of Chinese will travel within the country and abroad during the Lunar New Year holiday that begins this week.
Authorities around the world have intensified passenger control from Wuhan, the central city where the virus was discovered.
“Wuhan is an important center and as travel is an important part of the approaching Chinese New Year, the level of concern must remain high. There is more of this outbreak to come,” said Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease epidemic specialist and director of the world health charity Wellcome Trust.
China confirmed a total of 217 new cases of the virus, state television said on Monday, 198 of which were in Wuhan. Five new cases were confirmed in Beijing and 14 more in the province of Canton, according to the report. Another statement held that there is a new case in Shanghai, raising the number of contagion known in the world to 222.
The virus belongs to the same coronavirus family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people worldwide during a 2002/03 outbreak that also began in China.
Its symptoms include fever and shortness of breath, which are similar to many other respiratory diseases and present complications for screening efforts.
Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory disease expert and head of the health panel investigating the outbreak, confirmed that two cases of the infection in the Chinese province of Canton were caused by infection among humans.
South Korea confirmed on Monday its first case, a 35-year-old Chinese citizen who had traveled from Wuhan, so the number of patients outside of China rose to four.
Last week, two cases had been reported in Thailand and one in Japan. The three involved people from Wuhan or who recently visited that city.
A report by the MRC Center for the Analysis of Global Infectious Diseases at London Imperial College estimated that by January 12 there were 1,723 cases with the appearance of related symptoms in the city of Wuhan. The Chinese health authorities have not commented directly on the report.
“This outbreak is extremely worrying. Uncertainty and gaps persist, but now it is clear that there is transmission from person to person,” Farrar said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday that “an animal source” appeared to be the main source of the outbreak and that there was a “limited person-to-person transmission” between close contacts.
The UN agency, which is based in Geneva, later convened a committee of experts for Wednesday to assess whether the outbreak is an international emergency and what steps should be taken to handle it.