A SARS-like virus that has spread across China and reached three other Asian nations is contagious between humans, a Chinese government expert said today, fuelling fears of a major outbreak as millions travel for the Lunar New Year holiday.
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.
The total number of people diagnosed with the new virus rose to 218, as Beijing and Shanghai confirmed their first cases today while more than a dozen more emerged in southern Guangdong province and 136 new ones were found over the weekend in Wuhan, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
A third person has died in Wuhan, the local health commission said.
Scientists have scrambled to determine the mode of transmission, with a seafood market in Wuhan believed to be the centre of the outbreak.
But Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at the National Health Commission who helped expose the scale of the SARS outbreak, said patients could contract the new virus without having visited the city.
"Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission," he said in an interview with CCTV.
In Guangdong, two patients were infected by family members who visited Wuhan, Mr Zhong explained.
Fourteen medical personnel helping with coronavirus patients have also been infected, he said, though he added that more than 95 of the total cases were related to Wuhan.
The World Health Organization said earlier an animal source seemed to be "the most likely primary source" with "some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts".
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.
Weighing in on the matter for the first time, President Xi Jinping said today that safeguarding people's lives should be given "top priority" and that the spread of the epidemic "should be resolutely contained", according to CCTV.
Mr Xi said it was necessary to "release information on the epidemic in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation," and ensure people have a "stable and peaceful spring festival", the broadcaster said.
Five cases were reported in Beijing while in Shanghai a 56-year-old woman who had come from Wuhan was hospitalised and in a stable condition, local health authorities said.
South Korea also reported its first case today - a 35-year-old woman who flew in from Wuhan. Thailand and Japan have previously confirmed a total of three cases - all of whom had visited the Chinese city.
There are also six suspected cases in Shanghai and four provinces and regions in the east, south and southwest of the country.
The National Health Commission said yesterday that experts believe the epidemic "can still be controlled".
The virus did not slow down the annual holiday travel rush, though some travellers wore masks at crowded railway stations in Beijing and Shanghai.