BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Sunday that 17 more people had become infected with a new coronavirus strain, fanning fears it will spread further as hundreds of millions of people travel to celebrate the upcoming Lunar New Year.
Three of those patients are seriously ill, according to a statement issued by the health commission in the central city of Wuhan, where all 62 of the cases in China have occurred.
Two people have died. Two cases have also been reported in Thailand and one in Japan – both involving people who travelled from Wuhan. One of the two patients in Thailand has recovered.
Wuhan officials have been providing updates on new cases almost daily since Jan. 11, and 17 is the highest number reported since then.
The 17 new patients began exhibiting symptoms such as a fever or cough before Jan. 13, the statement said.
The World Health Organization said in a tweet on Sunday that some of the new cases appear not to be linked to the Huanan seafood market, believed to the centre of the outbreak. Due to China’s efforts to implement broader screening, new cases may be identified in the coming days and weeks, it added.
“The fact that three cases have been exported to Thailand and Japan without connection to the Huanan Seafood Market suggests that the virus has spread beyond the Huanan Seafood Market into the community,” said David Hui, a professor of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Chinese health authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a national level body, issued a large infographic on Saturday on social media, urging people not to believe rumours about the virus and stressing it is not SARS.
The unknown virus however is from the same large family of coronaviruses that includes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002/03 outbreak that also started in China.
Wuhan will strengthen oversight of large-scale events and reduce the number of public gatherings, state media quoted Chen Yanxin, the city’s deputy mayor as saying on Sunday.
Wuhan officials said since Jan. 14 they are using infrared thermometers at airports, railway stations and other passenger terminals in the city to strengthen screening.
The outbreak has stoked worries globally as many of China’s 1.4 billion people will travel both domestically and overseas during the Lunar New Year holidays that begin next week.
Airport authorities in the United States as well as most Asian nations are screening passengers from Wuhan.
Although some experts at Georgetown University say current evidence shows the new virus may not be as deadly as SARS, there is little known about its origins and how easily it can spread.
A report by the London Imperial College’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis said there are likely to be “substantially more cases”. It estimated that by Jan. 12 there were 1,723 cases in Wuhan City with onset of related symptoms.
News about the outbreak was trending on Weibo, a microblogging platform in China, on Sunday morning. Weibo regularly filters content that is deemed sensitive.
There has been some local-level censorship however. Two individuals told Reuters they were ordered by police to remove social media posts.
Many on social media called on people 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.
Reporting by Sophie Yu and Huizhong Wu; Additional reporting by Orathai Sriring; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Edwina Gibbs and Alexandra Hudson