China confirms human-to-human transmission of Wuhan virus as WHO announces emergency meet

China confirms human-to-human transmission of Wuhan virus as WHO announces emergency meet

BEIJING: A SARS-like virus that has spread across China and reached three other Asian nations is contagious between humans, a government expert said, and the World Health Organization announced that a key emergency committee would meet this week to discuss the infections.

The news came as Wuhan health authorities reported on Tuesday (Jan 21) that a fourth person had died from the coronavirus.

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), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

Factfile on the coronavirus family, which circulate in animals and can be transmitted to humans. A new strain of this virus has been identified in Wuhan, China. (AFP) 

READ: Wuhan pneumonia outbreak: A timeline of how the new coronavirus spread

The total number of people diagnosed with the new virus has risen to 218.

Beijing and Shanghai confirmed their first cases on Monday while more than a dozen emerged in southern Guangdong province and 136 new ones were found over the weekend in Wuhan, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Scientists have scrambled to determine the mode of transmission, with a seafood market in Wuhan believed to be the centre of the outbreak.

But Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at the 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.

According to the Xinhua news agency, Wuhan health authorities have established headquarters for the control and treatment of the pneumonia caused by the coronavirus. 

Public gatherings should be reduced or cancelled, the news agency reported.

Other measures such as the closing of related markets, circulation control of wild animals and body temperature checks of commuters at airports, railway station and wharfs should also be implemented, the report added. 

READ: Wuhan pneumonia virus outbreak: What we know so far

In Guangdong, two patients were infected by family members who visited Wuhan, Zhong explained.

Fifteen medical workers helping with coronavirus patients in Wuhan have also been diagnosed with pneumonia, with one in critical condition, local authorities said.

Zhong predicted an increase of viral pneumonia cases during the Chinese New Year holiday - when millions travel in China - but expressed confidence in curbing the spread of the virus, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.

The World Health Organization 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."

Wuhan has 11 million inhabitants and serves as a major transport hub, including during the annual Chinese New Year holiday, which begins later this week and sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country to visit family.

Wuhan flights
Destinations of planned flights from Jan 20-27 from Wuhan, where a mystery virus outbreak has killed three people and infected over 200. (AFP/Simon MALFATTO/Jacky FONG/Sabrina BLANCHARD)

READ: Wuhan pneumonia virus casts shadow over Chinese New Year festival

Weighing in on the matter for the first time, 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.

READ: China to step up countermeasures as Wuhan virus outbreak grows

Five cases were reported in Beijing while in Shanghai a 56-year-old woman who had come from Wuhan was hospitalised and in stable condition, local health authorities said.

South Korea on Monday also reported its first case - a 35-year-old woman who flew in from Wuhan. Thailand and Japan have previously confirmed a total of three cases - all of whom had visited the Chinese city.

There are also six suspected cases in Shanghai and four provinces and regions in the east, south and southwest of the country.

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.

READ: Wuhan virus: All travellers arriving in Singapore from China to undergo temperature screening


The WHO said the new cases in China were the result of "increased searching and testing for (the virus) among people sick with respiratory illness".

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.

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.

Wuhan disease
Medical staff members carry a patient into the Jinyintan hospital, where patients infected by a mysterious SARS-like virus are being treated, in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on Jan 18, 2020. (STR/AFP)

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.

Japan airport
Passengers walk past a sign at Narita Airport in Chiba prefecture on Jan 16, 2020. Japan has confirmed a case of a mystery virus that first emerged in China and is from the same family as the deadly SARS pathogen. (STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP)

Source: AFP/de