With millions of Asians traveling on Tuesday for the Lunar New Year holiday, authorities in China confirmed that a new virus could be spread through human contact, reporting 15 medical staff had been infected and a fourth person had died.
The chilling update on the coronavirus outbreak that began in the central city of Wuhan sent shivers through financial markets, as the World Health Organization called a meeting for Wednesday to consider declaring an international health emergency.
By the end of Monday the number of confirmed cases in China had climbed to 291, the National Health Commission said. Some 270 were in Hubei province. Wuhan, a city of 11 million people is the provincial capital.
The outbreak was also spreading to other cities, with 15 cases in southern province of Guangdong, five in the capital Beijing and two in Shanghai.
“Information about newly reported infections suggest there may now be sustained human to human transmission,” WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Takeshi Kasai said in an email statement.
The scare brought back bad memories of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that broke out in China in 2002/2003, resulting in the death of nearly 800 people in global pandemic.
Health authorities around the world have begun to step up screening of travelers arriving from China. Two cases have already been identified in Thailand, one in Japan and one in South Korea, while the Philippines reported on Tuesday its first suspected case.
Wuhan Municipal Health Commission confirmed a fourth fatality on Tuesday, disclosing that an 89-year-old man who had underlying health issues, including heart disease, died on Jan. 19.
Chinese authorities also confirmed for the first time that the virus could spread through human contact and said 15 medical staff had been infected.
The mounting anxiety was transmitted to regional markets. China's onshore yuan CNY= fell 0.6%, its biggest daily drop since Aug. 26, 2019, while airline and travel stocks fell across the region.
European shares also slipped on mounting concerns about the impact of the outbreak, with luxury goods firms particularly hard-hit on worries about weaker demand from Chinese consumers.
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.