BEIJING: The death toll from a mysterious flu-like virus in China climbed to six on Tuesday (Jan 21) as new cases surged beyond 300 and authorities fretted about the added risk from millions of Chinese travelling for the Chinese New Year holiday.
Round the world, airports tightened screening of travellers from China as officials confirmed the coronavirus strain is contagious between humans.
The World Health Organization (WHO) called a meeting for Wednesday to consider declaring a global health emergency.
Local health authorities across China have reported more than 300 cases in all, mostly in Wuhan, a provincial capital and transportation hub, where the virus may have originated at a seafood market.
There have been six deaths in that city, Mayor Zhou Xianwang told Chinese state television on Tuesday.
READ: Hong Kong scientists warn of 'super spreader' Wuhan virus, say more than 1,300 likely infected
The virus has been spreading around other parts of China, however, including five cases in capital Beijing.
Chinese media reported new cases in more provinces including Tianjin, Zhejiang, Chongqing, Shandong and Sichuan.
Thailand has reported two cases and South Korea one, all involving Chinese travellers from Wuhan. Japan and Taiwan also confirmed one case each.
On Jan 21, the United States announced its first case of the virus.
A US resident in his 30s who lives near Seattle approached authorities himself after reading about the SARS-like virus in news reports.
The man entered the country on Jan 15 after travelling to Wuhan, two days before the US began deploying health officials at major airports to screen passengers arriving from that central Chinese city which is at the heart of the outbreak. The efforts are to be extended now to a total of five US airports.
"Information about newly reported infections suggest there may now be sustained human-to-human transmission," said WHO's regional director for the western Pacific, Takeshi Kasai.
Taiwan on Monday set up an epidemic response command centre. More than 1,000 beds were prepared in isolation wards in case the virus spreads further.
Though the origin of the virus was yet to be identified, WHO said the primary source was probably animal. Chinese officials have linked the outbreak to Wuhan's seafood market.
The virus can cause pneumonia, with symptoms including fever and difficulty in breathing. As those symptoms are similar to many other respiratory diseases, extra screening is needed.
So far, the WHO has not recommended trade or travel restrictions but such measures could be discussed at Wednesday's meeting.
The outbreak, which began in the central city of Wuhan, also sent shivers through financial markets as investors recalled the fallout from China's Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002/2003 that it initially covered up.
The SARS coronavirus killed nearly 800 people then.
"We'll stay at home during the holiday. I'm scared as I remember SARS very well," said Zhang Xinyuan, who had been bound from Beijing for the Thai resort of Phuket before she and her husband decided to cancel their air tickets.
RUSH FOR MASKS
Airports in the United States, Australia and across Asia have begun screening passengers from Wuhan.
In the city itself, officials have been using infrared thermometers to screen passengers at airports, railway stations and other passenger terminals since Jan 14.
Chinese New Year is a major holiday for Chinese, many of whom travel to join family or have a foreign holiday.
Images of long lines of people queuing to buy face masks were circulating widely on Chinese social media.
Some online vendors were limiting sales of masks and hand sanitisers as demand surged.
Shanghai city's market regulator warned it would punish speculators hoarding masks or other products used for preventing diseases, according to the Shanghai Observer, a web publication backed by a Communist Party newspaper.
READ: Taiwan reports first case of new Wuhan pneumonia virus
But Zhong Nanshan, head of the National Health Commission's team investigating the outbreak, sought to ease alarm, saying in footage shown by state television there was no danger of a repeat of the SARS epidemic so long as precautions were taken.
Chinese travel booking platforms from Trip.com to Alibaba Group's Fliggy said they would offer free cancellations on bookings made for Wuhan.
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