China confirms human-to-human transmission of the SARS-like Wuhan virus as the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that a key emergency committee would meet this week to discuss the infections.
The news came as Wuhan health authorities reported on Tuesday that a fourth person had died from the coronavirus. The new coronavirus strain, first discovered in the central city of Wuhan, has caused alarm because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
Zhong Nanshan, a leading researcher China’s National Health Commission who helped expose the scale of the SARS outbreak, says patients could contract the new virus without having visited the city.
“Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission,” he said in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
The news comes as hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens head to their hometowns for Lunar New Year. Wuhan has a population of 11 million and serves as one of the major transport hubs for the country.
Beijing and Shanghai confirmed their first cases on Monday while more than a dozen more emerged in southern Guangdong province and 136 new ones were found over the weekend in Wuhan, according to CCTV.
South Korea on Monday also reported its first case – a 35-year-old woman who flew in from Wuhan. Thailand and Japan have previously confirmed a total of three cases – all of whom had visited the Chinese city.
The World Health Organization panel will meet in Geneva on Wednesday to determine whether to declare the outbreak “a public health emergency of international concern,” a rare designation used only for the gravest epidemics.
Scientists with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London warned in a paper published on Friday that the number of cases in Wuhan was likely to be closer to 1,700 – substantially higher than the official figure.
Airports around the world are now stepping up temperature scanning of arriving passengers from all destinations.
China’s leader Xi Jinping weighed in on the outbreak Monday, urging a redoubling of control and prevention efforts to ensure a “stable and peaceful Spring Festival.”