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.
Another 2,197 people who came into contact with infected people were isolated, with 765 so far released from observation, National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin told reporters, adding that there was already evidence that the virus was being spread through “respiratory transmission”.
“Recently there has been a big change in the number of cases, which is related to our deepening our understanding of the disease, improving diagnostic methods and optimising the distribution of diagnostic kits,” said Li.
As China vowed to tighten containment measures in hospitals, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was due to hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday 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 Macao, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
The Chinese government has been providing daily updates on the number of cases in a bid to head off public panic, as millions of people prepare to travel domestically and abroad for the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations starting this week.
“At present, during the Lunar New Year, the rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading and the difficulty of prevention and control,” Li warned, noting that the mutation of the virus could also bring further risks.
Fears of a pandemic similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak 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.