BEIJING: China on Monday (Jan 20) reported a third death and 139 new cases of pneumonia over the weekend, caused by the outbreak of a new coronavirus strain that medical experts are still struggling to understand.
Officials also confirmed the virus had been detected in Beijing and Guangdong province, marking the first instances of the illness spreading beyond Wuhan, the city where the cases were first discovered.
Health authorities in Beijing's Daxing district said two people who had travelled to Wuhan were treated for pneumonia linked to the virus and are in stable condition.
In Guangdong, a 66-year-old man in Shenzhen was quarantined on Jan 11 after contracting a fever and showing other symptoms following a trip to visit relatives in Wuhan, the provincial health commission said in a statement.
"Experts believe that the current epidemic situation is still preventable and controllable," the Guangdong health commission said.
Separately, China's eastern province of Zhejiang on Monday reported that five patients are in quarantine for respiratory illness but the diagnosis is not confirmed yet.
The patients are in stable condition and their close contacts have been placed under medical observation, said Zhejiang province's health commission.
In Wuhan, the local health commission said 136 new cases were found over the weekend, without giving details about the person who died.
Among the new cases in the city, 66 are male and 70 are female, ranging in age between 25 and 89 years old. Their symptoms included fever, coughing or tightness of the chest and breathing difficulties, a statement from the health commission said.
Weighing in on the matter for the first time, Chinese 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 state broadcaster 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.
The total number of people diagnosed with the virus rose to 217, according to CCTV.
In Wuhan, 170 people are still being treated at hospitals, including nine in critical condition.
China, the World Health Organization and authorities across the globe are stepping up efforts to contain the virus, which initially emerged in Wuhan in late December as a wave of pneumonia patients.
Many of China's 1.4 billion people will travel domestically and abroad during the Chinese New Year break that begins this week, raising concerns about the virus spreading to other countries.
The virus did not slow down the annual holiday travel rush, though some travellers wore masks at crowded railway stations in Beijing and Shanghai.
"Watching the news, I do feel a little worried. But I haven't taken precautionary measures beyond wearing regular masks," said Li Yang, a 28-year-old account manager who was heading home to the northern region of Inner Mongolia for the Chinese New Year.
The virus belongs in the same family of coronaviruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002-2003 outbreak that also started in China.
Though some experts say the new virus may not be as deadly as SARS, there is still little known about it including its origin and how easily it can be transmitted between humans.
The World Health Organization said on Sunday that some of the new cases appear not to be linked to the Huanan seafood market, believed to be the centre of the outbreak.
Scientists with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London warned in a paper published Friday that the number of cases in the city was likely to be closer to 1,700, much higher than the number officially identified.
Due to China's efforts to implement broader screening, new cases may be identified in the coming days and weeks, it added.
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Wuhan, a city of 11 million inhabitants that serve as a major transport hub, will strengthen oversight of big events and reduce the number of public gatherings, state media quoted Chen Yanxin, the city's deputy mayor as saying on Sunday.
Wuhan deputy mayor Chen Xiexin said CCTV at the weekend that infrared thermometers had been installed at airports, railway stations and coach stations across the city.
Chen said passengers with fevers were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions. Nearly 300,000 body temperature tests had been carried out, according to CCTV.
Authorities in Hong Kong have stepped up detection measures, including rigorous temperature checkpoints for inbound travellers from the Chinese mainland.
Airport authorities in Singapore, the United States as well as most Asian nations are also screening passengers from Wuhan.