China confirms 218 pneumonia cases as President Xi urges 'top priority' for protecting lives

China confirms 218 pneumonia cases as President Xi urges 'top priority' for protecting lives

A medical staff member walks outside the Jinyintan hospital
A medical staff member walks outside 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. (Photo: STR/AFP)

BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Monday (Jan 20) the country would curb the spread of an outbreak of pneumonia caused by a new coronavirus, state television reported.

Weighing in on the matter for the first time, Chinese President Xi said 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.

The total number of people diagnosed with the virus rose to 218, as Shanghai confirmed its first case on Monday and 136 new cases were found over the weekend in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, 15 in southern Guangdong province and five in Beijing, according to CCTV.

President 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", CCTV said.

According to Shanghai's health commission, its first case - a 56-year-old woman who was hospitalised last Wednesday - also came from Wuhan.

The patient's vital signs are stable and two of her close contacts are under medical observation, it said through its official Twitter-like Weibo account.

The new coronavirus strain, first discovered in 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.

The SARS-like virus has killed a third person, spread around China and reached another Asian country, fuelling fears of a major outbreak as millions begin travelling for the Chinese New Year in humanity's biggest migration.

South Korea on Monday 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.

READ: Thailand finds second case of new Wuhan virus, says no outbreak

READ: Japan confirms case of new Chinese virus, spread is 'concerning'

No human-to-human transmission has been confirmed so far, but authorities have not ruled out the possibility.

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

"Experts believe that the current epidemic situation can still be controlled," the National Health Commission said on Sunday.

But the commission acknowledged that the source of the coronavirus and its mode of transmission are not yet known.

The virus did not slow down the annual holiday travel rush, though some travellers wore masks at crowded railway stations in Beijing and Shanghai.

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

"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.

DETECTION MEASURES

A seafood market is believed to be the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan, but health officials have reported that some patients had no history of contact with the facility.

A seafood market is believed to be the centre of the outbreak in the city
A seafood market is believed to be the centre of the outbreak in the city, but health officials have reported that some patients had no history of contact with the facility. (Photo: AFP/Noel Celis)

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Twitter Monday that "an animal source seems the most likely primary source" with "some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts".

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

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

Commentary: China's Wuhan pneumonia outbreak stirs debate over costly virus hunting

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, railway stations and coach stations across the city. Passengers with fever were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions.

State TV footage aired Monday showed medical staff working inside an isolation ward at a Wuhan hospital in full-body suits.

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

No human-to-human transmission has been confirmed so far
No human-to-human transmission has been confirmed so far, but authorities have previously said the possibility 'cannot be excluded'. (Photo: AFP/STR)

In Hong Kong, health officials announced they were expanding their enhanced checks on arrivals to include anyone coming in from Hubei province, not just Wuhan, its capital. More than 100 people are being monitored in the city.

Airport authorities in Singapore, the United States as well as most Asian nations are also screening passengers from Wuhan.

In Wuhan, 170 people are still being treated at hospital, including nine in critical condition, the city health commission said, adding that 25 people have been discharged so far.

Chinese state media moved to calm the mood as discussion about the coronavirus spreading to other Chinese cities swelled on social media.

Nationalist tabloid Global Times called for better handling of the new virus than that of the 2003 SARS outbreak.

The foreign ministry said on Monday that Beijing had informed the WHO and other countries about the virus "in a timely manner".

Source: Agencies/ec

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