A mysterious Sars-like virus has spread around China – including to Beijing – authorities said on Monday, fuelling fears of a major outbreak as millions begin travelling for the Lunar New Year in humanity’s biggest migration.
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.
Wuhan has 11 million inhabitants and serves as a major transport hub, including during the annual Lunar New Year holiday which begins later this week and sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country to visit family.
No human-to-human transmission has been confirmed so far, but authorities have previously said the possibility “cannot be excluded”.
A third person was confirmed to have died, and in Wuhan 136 new cases were found over the weekend, the local health commission said.
Three cases have been reported overseas – two in Thailand and one in Japan.
Health authorities in Beijing’s Daxing district said two people who had travelled to Wuhan were treated for pneumonia linked to the virus and are in stable condition.
In Guangdong, a 66-year-old Shenzhen man was quarantined on 11 January after contracting a fever and showing other symptoms following a trip to visit relatives in Wuhan, the provincial health commission said in a statement. He is also in stable condition.
“Experts believe that the current epidemic situation is still preventable and controllable,” the Guangdong health commission said.
A total of 201 people have now been diagnosed with the virus in China.
A seafood market is believed to be the centre of the outbreak in the city, but health officials have reported that some patients had no history of contact with the facility.
Scientists with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London warned in a paper published Friday that the number of cases in the city was likely to be closer to 1,700, much higher than the number officially identified.
Wuhan deputy mayor Chen Xiexin said on state broadcaster CCTV at the weekend that infrared thermometers had been installed at airports, railway stations and coach stations across the city.
Chen said passengers with fevers were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions. Nearly 300,000 body temperature tests had been carried out, according to CCTV.
Authorities in Hong Kong have stepped up detection measures, including rigorous temperature checkpoints for inbound travellers from the Chinese mainland.
The United States said from Friday it would begin screening direct flights arriving from Wuhan at San Francisco airport and New York’s JFK, as well as Los Angeles, where many flights connect.