At least nine people have died from a new coronavirus in China following an outbreak in the city of Wuhan and more than 470 cases have been reported globally, most in China.
Global health authorities fear the transmission rate will accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday.
China confirmed 473 cases as of Jan 21, according to the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper.
Thailand reported four cases, and South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States one each. All involved residents of Wuhan or recent visitors to the city.
Chinese authorities are trying to determine the origin of the virus, which they say came from a market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally. The World Health Organization (WHO) says an animal appears most likely to be the primary source.
China’s National Health Commission Vice Minister Li Bin told reporters there was evidence of respiratory transmission of the virus from patient to patient. Chinese authorities say 15 medical staff have been infected.
Some experts say the virus may not be as deadly as other coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people during a 2002-2003 outbreak also originating from China.
There is no vaccine for the new virus, which China says is mutating. Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty in breathing.
Chinese authorities have stepped up monitoring and disinfection efforts ahead of the Lunar New Year break that starts on Jan. 24.
They have also advised people to not travel to Wuhan and also asked Wuhan residents to remain there.
Airports in the United States and Britain, as well as many Asian countries, including Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and South Korea, stepped up screening of passengers from Wuhan. Russia strengthened sanitary and quarantine controls at entry points.
Taiwan advised people not to visit Wuhan unless absolutely necessary and suspended Wuhan tourist groups from visiting the island.
The WHO sent directives to hospitals around the world on infection prevention and control. An emergency committee of experts met on Wednesday in Geneva to assess whether the outbreak constitutes an international emergency.
While the WHO has yet to recommend trade or travel restrictions, some Chinese travel booking platforms and airlines have offered free cancellations for Wuhan trips. Beyond Wuhan, some Chinese have begun canceling travel plans for the Lunar New Year and avoiding public areas like cinemas and shopping centres.
Companies are handing out masks and warning staff to avoid Wuhan. Shanghai’s Disneyland will waive some rescheduling fees for customers who change travel plans. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd (0293.HK) will let passengers to Wuhan change or cancel flights without charge through Feb. 15 and permit cabin crew to wear masks on flights to the mainland.