BEIJING: The ability of the new coronavirus to spread is strengthening and infections could continue to rise, China's National Health Commission said on Sunday (Jan 26), with more than 2,300 people in China infected and 80 killed by the disease.
Health authorities around the world are racing to prevent a pandemic after a handful of cases of infection were reported outside China, including in Thailand, Australia, the United States and France.
The mayor of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, said he expected another 1,000 new patients in the city, which was stepping up construction of special hospitals.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because much about it is still unknown, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
China's National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said the incubation period for the virus can range from one to 14 days, during which infection can occur, which was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
SARS was a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.
"According to recent clinical information, the virus' ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger," Ma told reporters.
He said authorities' knowledge of the new virus was limited and they are unclear on the risks posed by mutations of the virus.
The Chinese New Year holiday, traditionally celebrated by hundreds of millions of Chinese travelling around the country and abroad to see family, began on Friday but has been severely disrupted by the outbreak.
Ma said China would intensify its containment efforts, which have so far included transportation and travel curbs and the cancellation of big events.
The country may extend the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, state broadcaster CCTV reported, citing a meeting hosted by Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Hong Kong has six confirmed cases.
The World Health Organization this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can contain the epidemic.
Chinese President Xi Jinping described the situation as "grave" on Saturday.
China confirmed more than 2,300 cases of infection on Jan 27, while the death toll from the virus has risen to 80, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Health officials in Orange County, California, reported that a third case had been registered in the United States in a traveller from Wuhan, who was in isolation and in good condition.
On Saturday, Canada declared a first "presumptive" confirmed case in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. Australia confirmed its first four cases.
No fatalities have been reported outside China.
WILDLIFE SALES BAN
On Sunday, China announced a nationwide ban on the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms.
Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets are blamed as incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
Snakes, peacocks, crocodiles and other species can also be found for sale via Taobao, an e-commerce website run by Alibaba.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society called on China to make the ban permanent.
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The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his government was working with China to arrange a charter flight for Japanese nationals to return from Wuhan.
The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movements within China, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on virtual lockdown and transport links all-but severed except for emergency vehicles.
A new working group to tackle the epidemic, chaired by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, called for local authorities to consider "extending the Spring Festival holiday", in order to prevent the movement of people.
Several cities responded, with new school terms delayed in Beijing, Shanghai and the city of Suzhou in eastern Jiangsu province - which also ordered companies to extend the end of the holiday until Feb 9.
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