BEIJING – China reported 17 new cases of the mysterious SARS-like virus on Sunday, including three in a severe condition, heightening fears ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, when hundreds of millions of people will travel around the country.
The new strain of coronavirus has caused alarm because of its connection to severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002 and 2003.
Of the 17 new cases in the central city of Wuhan — believed to be the epicenter of the outbreak — three were described as “severe.”
The virus has now infected 62 people in Wuhan, city authorities said, with eight in severe condition, 35 in isolation receiving treatment, and 19 discharged from the hospital. Two people have died, including a 69-year-old man on Wednesday.
The disease causes pulmonary tuberculosis in the lungs and damage to multiple other organs.
Wuhan authorities said they had begun “optimized” testing of pneumonia cases to identify those infected with the virus and would begin “detection work … toward suspected cases in the city” as a next step.
A paper published Friday by scientists with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London warned that the number of cases in the city was likely to be closer to 1,700 than the officially known figure, extrapolating from the three confirmed cases outside China: two in Thailand and one in Japan.
Authorities said Sunday that some of the new cases had “no history of contact” with the seafood market believed to be the center of the outbreak.
No human-to-human transmission has been confirmed so far, but Wuhan’s health commission has said the possibility “cannot be excluded.”
Mainland China has not yet announced any travel restrictions, but authorities in Hong Kong have stepped up detection measures, including rigorous temperature checkpoints for inbound travelers from the Chinese mainland.
The U.S. 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.
Thailand said it was already screening passengers arriving in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket and would soon introduce similar controls in the beach resort of Krabi.
Wuhan is a city of 11 million that serves as a major transport hub, including during the annual Lunar New Year holiday, when hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country to visit family.
The news of the latest coronavirus outbreak was trending on Weibo, a microblogging platform in China, on Sunday morning. Weibo regularly filters content that is deemed sensitive.
There has been local censorship of news about the outbreak, however. Two individuals said they were ordered by police to remove social media posts.
Many on social media shared the news and called on others to be careful.
“We’re about to celebrate the new year, hope everyone is safe. Don’t go to places where there’s a lot of people,” said one user.
Others wondered about the spread of the disease.
“Is this only in Wuhan? There’s no cases in other cities?” asked one user.