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Number of new coronavirus cases rises sharply in China

Chinese health authorities have urged people in the city of Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings, after warning on Wednesday that a new viral illness that has infected hundreds and caused at least nine deaths could spread further.

The number of new cases has risen sharply in China, the centre of the outbreak. There were 473 confirmed cases as of Wednesday, said Li Bin, deputy director of the National Health Commission. Nine people have died, all in Hubei province, since the outbreak emerged in its provincial capital of Wuhan late last month.

China discouraged public gatherings in Hubei province, where the virus emerged last month, and tightened containment measures in hospitals, while the World Health Organization (WHO) was due to hold an emergency meeting to determine whether the outbreak constituted a global health emergency.

“There has already been human-to-human transmission and infection of medical workers,” Li said at a news conference with health experts. “Evidence has shown that the disease has been transmitted through the respiratory tract and there is the possibility of viral mutation.”

The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus, a family of viruses that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003 and killed about 800 people.

Symptoms of the virus, which can cause pneumonia, include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. There is no vaccine for the virus, which can be passed from person to person. Fifteen medical personnel are among those infected in China.

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Hong Kong quarantined a 39-year-old man on Wednesday after the city’s first preliminary positive result in a test for the new flu-like coronavirus found in an outbreak in central mainland China, authorities said.

The tourist from Wuhan came to Hong Kong on Tuesday via high-speed rail from nearby Shenzhen and was detected as having fever at the border. He was in stable condition in an isolation ward at Princess Margaret Hospital, Health Minister Sophia Chan said.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, said on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, that the rapid flow of people across the Hong Kong border makes the city highly vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak. 

The Chinese government has provided updates on the number of cases in a bid to head off panic, as hundreds of 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,” the National Health Commission vice-minister told reporters.

There was evidence that the virus was being spread through “respiratory transmission,” Li said. And, the director-general of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said virus was adapting and mutating, underscoring the challenges for health authorities.

Gao said officials are working on the assumption that the outbreak resulted from human exposure to wild animals being sold illegally at a food market in Wuhan and that the virus is mutating. Mutations can make the virus spread faster or make people sicker.

Screening measures stepped up

Thailand authorities Wednesday confirmed four cases, a Thai national and three Chinese visitors. Japan, South Korea, the United States and Taiwan have all reported one case each. All of the illnesses were of people from Wuhan or who recently had traveled there.

“The situation is under control here,” Thailand Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told reporters, saying there are no reports of the infection spreading to others. “We checked all of them: taxi drivers, people who wheeled the wheelchairs for the patients, doctors and nurses who worked around them.”

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a medical worker takes a passenger’s temperature at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in southern China’s Hubei province on Wednesday. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via The Associated Press)

Macao, a former Portuguese colony that is a semi-autonomous Chinese city, reported one case Wednesday.

Travel agencies that organize trips to North Korea say the country has banned foreign tourists because of the outbreak. Most tourists to North Korea are either Chinese or travel to the country through neighbouring China. North Korea also closed its borders in 2003 during the SARS scare.

Other countries have also stepped up screening measures for travellers from China, especially those arriving from Wuhan. Worries have been heightened by the coming of the Lunar New Year holiday rush.

U.S. officials said they will begin screening travellers coming from Wuhan at three major airports — New York City’s JFK International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.

While in Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) told CBC News that it will be “implementing additional measures” in the coming week, including warning signs in English, French and simplified Chinese at airports in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. On the kiosks where people fill in questions, they’ll be asked if they’ve been in an area affected by the outbreak within the last 14 days. 

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told reporters that there are no reported cases of this new coronavirus in Canada and the agency is not aware of any cases involving Canadians overseas.

There were three travellers from Wuhan who were investigated and ruled out in the last week, Tam said. She would not say where in Canada they were screened.

“It is important to take this seriously, and be vigilant and be prepared. But I don’t think there’s reason for us to panic or be overly concerned,” Tam said.

Disease ‘will continue to develop’

Officials said it was too early to compare the new virus with SARS or MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, in terms of how lethal it might be. They attributed the spike in new cases to improvements in detection and monitoring.

Jiao Yahui, a health commission official, said “the disease will continue to develop. It has developed different features compared with the early stage, and the prevention and precautionary measures need to change accordingly.”

One veteran of the SARS outbreak said that while there are some similarities in the new virus — namely its origins in China and the link to animals — the current outbreak appears much milder.

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Dr. David Heymann, who headed WHO’s global response to SARS in 2003. said the new virus appears dangerous to older people with other health conditions, but doesn’t look nearly as infectious as SARS.

“It looks like it doesn’t transmit through the air very easily and probably transmits through close contact,” he said. “That was not the case with SARS.”

Health officials confirmed earlier this week that the disease can be spread between humans after finding two infected people in Guangdong province in southern China who had not been to Wuhan.

Fifteen medical workers also tested positive for the virus, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission has said.

Fourteen of them, one doctor and 13 nurses, were infected by a patient who had been hospitalized for neurosurgery but also had the coronavirus.

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