BEIJING/SHANGHAI – The death toll from a new flu-like coronavirus in China rose to nine on Wednesday with 440 confirmed cases, Chinese health officials said as authorities stepped up efforts to control the outbreak by discouraging public gatherings in Hubei province.
As China vowed to tighten containment measures in hospitals, the World Health Organization (WHO) was due to hold an emergency meeting to determine whether the outbreak of the new coronavirus constitutes a global health emergency.
The virus, originating in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei at the end of last year, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Macau, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
The Chinese government has provided daily updates on the number of cases in a bid to head off public panic, as 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,” National Health Commission vice minister Li Bin told reporters.
There was evidence that the virus was being spread through “respiratory transmission,” Li said. And, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said virus was adapting and mutating, underscoring the challenges for health authorities.
Some 2,197 people who came into contact with infected people were being kept in isolation, while 765 have been released from observation.
“There has been a big change in the number of cases, which is related to our deepening understanding of the disease, improving diagnostic methods and optimizing the distribution of diagnostic kits,” Li said.
Symptoms of the virus, which can cause pneumonia, include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. The infection can be passed from person to person, and 15 medical personnel are among those infected in China.
Fears of a pandemic similar to an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that started in China and killed nearly 800 people in 2002-2003 have roiled global markets, with aviation and luxury goods stocks hit particularly hard and the Chinese yuan tumbling.
Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, said he was advising company employees not to visit China over the holiday, amid concern over the virus.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said new cases of the coronavirus would appear as China stepped up monitoring.
Li said there was no evidence of “super-spreaders” capable of disseminating the virus more widely, as happened during the SARS outbreak.
Though the origin of the virus had yet to be identified, the WHO said the primary source was probably animal. Chinese officials have linked the outbreak to Wuhan’s seafood market.
Officials found to have covered up infections would be a “sinner for eternity before the Party and the people,” the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Commission said in a post on its WeChat social media account that was subsequently deleted.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen called on China to share “correct” information about the virus and for the WHO not to exclude Taiwan from collaboration on the outbreak for political reasons.
Taiwan is not a member of the WHO due to the objection of China, which considers the island a Chinese province with no right to participate in international organizations unless it accepts it is part of China.
Taiwan on Tuesday confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, a woman returning from Wuhan.
Like Australia, Taiwan warned citizens to avoid Wuhan, and airports around the world have stepped up screening of travelers from China. Taiwan has banned tour groups from Wuhan.
The Chinese-ruled gambling hub of Macau confirmed its first case of pneumonia linked to the coronavirus and tightened body-temperature screening measures in casinos and around the city.
A first case of the virus was also reported by media in nearby Hong Kong on Wednesday. Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said the government was on high alert.
“The whole world is watching,” Yau said at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Several foreign tour operators said North Korea banned foreign tourists from Wednesday due to the virus, losing one of its main sources of foreign currency.
Qualifying boxing matches for Asia and Oceania region for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo set to take place in Wuhan in February have been canceled, Kyodo News reported.
However, the Australian women’s soccer team was preparing for a trip to Wuhan for Olympic qualifiers next month, head coach Ante Milicic said.
Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd said it would allow flight attendants to wear surgical masks while on mainland China flights.
Cathay said that with immediate effect, rebooking, rerouting and refund charges would be waived for all tickets to or from Wuhan through Feb. 15. China’s aviation regulator has told mainland carriers to refund or change flights to Wuhan without charge.