The death toll from a new flu-like coronavirus in China rose to nine on Wednesday with 440 confirmed cases, Chinese health officials said as authorities stepped up efforts to control the outbreak by discouraging public gatherings in Hubei province.
As China vowed to tighten containment measures in hospitals, the World Health Organization (WHO) was due to hold an emergency meeting to determine whether the outbreak of the new coronavirus constitutes a global health emergency.
The virus, originating in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei at the end of last year, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Macau, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
The Chinese government has provided daily updates on the number of cases in a bid to head off public panic, as millions of people prepare to travel at home and abroad for Lunar New Year celebrations starting this week.
“The rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading and the difficulty of prevention and control,” National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin told reporters.
There was evidence that the virus was being spread through “respiratory transmission”, Li said. And, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said virus was adapting and mutating, underscoring the challenges for health authorities.
Some 2,197 people who came into contact with infected people were being kept in isolation, while 765 have been released from observation.
“There has been a big change in the number of cases, which is related to our deepening understanding of the disease, improving diagnostic methods and optimizing the distribution of diagnostic kits,” Li said.
Symptoms of the virus, which can cause pneumonia, include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. The infection can be passed from person to person, and 15 medical personnel are among those infected in China.
Fears of a pandemic similar to an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) 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.