BEIJING: The number of deaths from a new SARS-like virus has climbed to nine as of the end of Tuesday (Jan 21) with 440 confirmed cases, Chinese health officials said as authorities stepped up efforts to control the outbreak by discouraging public gatherings in Hubei province.
Another 2,197 cases of close contact with patients had been confirmed and there was evidence of "respiratory transmission" of the virus, National Health Commission Vice-Minister Li Bin told reporters.
The number of cases compares with the total of more than 300 reported earlier as of Tuesday.
The coronavirus is transmitted via the respiratory tract and there "is the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease", said Li.
He added that live animals were not allowed to enter Wuhan, the central Chinese city in Hubei where the outbreak originated.
Hubei had been asked to minimise public gatherings and people across the country were urged to avoid densely populated areas in general, the health commission said. China would also step up cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO), Li added.
Officials found to have covered up infections would be a "sinner for eternity before the Party and the people", the Chinese Communist Party's Central Political and Legal Commission said in a post on its WeChat social media account that was subsequently deleted.
The health commission announced measures to contain the disease as hundreds of millions of people travel across the country for this week's Chinese New Year holiday, including disinfection and ventilation at airports, train stations and shopping centres.
"When needed, temperature checks will also be implemented in key areas at crowded places," the commission said in a statement.
"I'm not sure that we could expect more of them at this stage in the outbreak, particularly when they are understandably focused on responding to the outbreak and trying to contain it ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations," said Adam Kamradt-Scott, an infectious diseases expert at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.
The WHO said on Tuesday the new coronavirus was likely to spread to other parts of China and possibly other countries in the coming days.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said new cases would appear as China stepped up monitoring.
"If you increase surveillance and testing you are likely to get new numbers," he added.
Airports around the world have tightened screening of travellers from China as officials confirmed the coronavirus strain is contagious between humans.
READ: US confirms first case of Wuhan virus on American soil
Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have all previously confirmed cases of the disease, while the United States confirmed its first case on Tuesday.
Fears of a pandemic similar to the SARS outbreak that started in China and killed nearly 800 people in 2002-2003 have roiled global markets, with aviation and luxury goods stocks hit particularly hard and the Chinese yuan tumbling.
Fifteen medical personnel are among those infected in China. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. The viral infection can cause pneumonia and can be passed from person to person.
Though the origin of the virus has yet to be identified, WHO said the primary source was probably animal. Chinese officials have linked the outbreak to Wuhan's seafood market.
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