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New Coronavirus Can Spread Person-to-Person

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A pedestrian wearing a mask walks in a residential area in Beijing on Jan. 21, 2020. The number of people in China infected by a new SARS-like virus jumped to 291, according to authorities. WANG ZHAO / AFP via Getty Images

A new coronavirus that began sickening people in China late in 2019 can be transmitted from human to human, the country's health ministry announced Monday.


The mysterious respiratory illness emerged last month in a fish market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and officials thought it was mostly passed from animals to humans. However, Zhong Nanshan of China's National Health Commission said two people who lived hundreds of miles away caught the virus from a family member who had visited Wuhan.

"The current cases show there is definitely human-to-human transmission," Zhong told Chinese state-run CCTV, as CNN reported.

Officials on Tuesday also announced that the virus had killed six people, Reuters reported.

The illness can cause fever, cough, difficulty breathing and pneumonia, according to The Guardian. As of late Monday, it had sickened at least 291 people, Reuters reported, 258 in Wuhan. Fifteen health workers have also been infected, and it has now spread to various places in China, including Beijing and Shanghai.

The disease has also spread outside China: Two cases were diagnosed in Thailand, one in Japan, one in South Korea and one in Taiwan. The Philippines also reported a suspected case Tuesday.

There are fears the disease could spread further as millions are expected to travel throughout Asia Tuesday for the Lunar New Year.

"I believe Chinese tourists will bring the virus to many other countries in Asia in the coming days, due to their overseas travels during the Lunar New Year holiday," Chinese University of Hong Kong professor David Hui Shu-cheong told CNN Monday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has not imposed any travel or trade restrictions over the outbreak, according to Reuters, but that could change Wednesday, which is when the organization has called a meeting to discuss whether to declare an international health emergency.

Airports in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco will begin screening passengers coming from Wuhan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday, according to CNN. Wuhan has installed thermometers at airports, train stations and other transit hubs to monitor the temperatures of people leaving the city, but it only began doing so Jan. 14, five weeks into the outbreak.

The new virus has raised the specter of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that killed almost 800 people in 2002 and 2003. Zhong, who also helped discover SARS, said the new disease was not as infectious, but was "climbing," according to CNN.

Researchers at Imperial College London also think the new virus has been severely underreported.

"The detection of three cases outside China is worrying," Imperial College London disease outbreak scientist Neil Ferguson told CNN before the number of foreign cases had risen. "We calculate, based on flight and population data, that there is only a 1 in 574 chance that a person infected in Wuhan would travel overseas before they sought medical care. This implies there might have been over 1,700 cases in Wuhan so far."

Officials are also concerned that they do not yet know the exact source of the disease, The Guardian explained. While the fish market it was originally linked to has been closed since Jan. 1, some of the people who fell sick never visited it.

"What concerns me is the source of infection. We have no idea. That's the most important thing. Without knowing that we don't know the harm, how hard it can be," Xi Chen, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told The Guardian.

However, Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor focusing on health security at City University of Hong Kong, urged against panic.

"At the moment, it is a bad flu. Yes, it is something to be concerned about and it is probably going to get worse in terms of infections and mortality, but again it's winter," he said. "It is likely to spread but we are still a long way off the levels of Sars or bird flu."

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