A leading Chinese health expert announced on Monday that the newly identified coronavirus can be transmitted from human to human, causing a higher level of alert across Asia as this means the virus can spread faster and wider than previously thought.
Zhong Nanshan, the head of China’s expert team within the National Health Commission and a prominent pulmonologist who spearheaded the fight against Sars in 2003, said that 14 medical staff had been confirmed to be infected from a single carrier in Wuhan and two other confirmed cases in Guangdong province caught the virus from their family members.
Dr Nanshan’s statement came a day after a particularly troubled weekend in which around 150 cases were confirmed, pushing the total number to 291. Independent reports suggest the number of cases could be higher. Experts have described the sudden sharp rise in cases as worrisome.
The majority of the cases were found in Wuhan – site of the first infection. The virus was traced back to a food market in the city, where wild animals including civet cats were reportedly for sale.
Civet cats were linked to the transmission of the Sars virus to humans in 2006, having been infected by bats. Civet cat meat is a delicacy in parts of China.
But Beijing and Shanghai also reported their first confirmed cases at the weekend. As of Tuesday afternoon local time, the virus had killed six people, one of whom already had a severe underlying disease prior to contracting the virus, according to local authorities.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first public speech about the virus on Monday, saying that curbing its spread was of the utmost importance.
"Government should put people's safety and health first, organise all parties to carry out prevention and control, take practical and effective measures and resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic," he said.
The World Health Organisation is scheduled to convene a meeting in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss whether to classify the virus as a public health emergency of international concern – a label used to describe crises such as the Ebola outbreak.
So far, the WHO and Chinese government have been cautious and only advised basic precautions. But the confirmation of human-to-human transmission may change their approach.
Last Friday, authorities in Wuhan began checking citizens for fever, coughing and other flu-like symptoms at airports and train stations and bus stations. The US government has also set up special screening procedures for flights coming from Wuhan into New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“If you are outside of Wuhan, don’t travel there unless you have to; and if you are in Wuhan, don’t leave unless you have to,” said Zeng Guang, an expert from the National Health Commission.
The spread of the virus comes at the worst time possible for China. The Chinese New Year takes place on January 25 and the 40 days surrounding it are called "Spring Festival travel rush" – the largest seasonal human migration in the world. This year, according to China's Ministry of Transportation, over three billion trips are expected to be made - raising fears about how fast the virus may spread.