NEWS
01/20/2020 09:40 EST | Updated 01/20/2020 11:25 EST

New SARS-Like Virus Can Be Spread Human-To-Human: Top Chinese Expert

Two people caught the disease from family members, state media says.

BEIJING — The head of a Chinese government expert team said Monday that human-to-human transmission has been confirmed in an outbreak of a new coronavirus.

Team leader Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert, said two people in Guangdong province in southern China caught the disease from family members, state media said.

The Chinese National Health Commission task force also found that some medical workers have tested positive for the virus, the English-language China Daily newspaper said.

Human-to-human transmission could make the virus spread more quickly and widely. The outbreak is believed to have started from people who picked it up at a fresh food market in the city of Wuhan in central China.

Zhong said the two people in Guangdong had not been to Wuhan but family members had returned from the city, the China Daily said.

The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously.Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday that it’s “extremely crucial” to take every possible measure to combat a new coronavirus that has infected 217 people in the country.

His remarks, cited by state broadcaster CCTV, came the same day that the country reported a sharp rise in the number of people infected by the novel form of viral pneumonia, including the first cases in the capital.

The outbreak comes as the country enters its busiest travel period, when millions board trains and planes for the Lunar New Year holidays.

“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” Xi said, according to CCTV. “Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first.”

They should “ensure that the masses have a quiet, peaceful and joyous Spring Festival,” he added.

Health authorities in the central city of Wuhan, where the viral pneumonia appears to have originated, said an additional 136 cases have been confirmed in the city, which now has a total of 198 infected patients. As of the weekend, a third patient had died.

Five individuals in Beijing and 14 in southern China’s Guangdong province have also been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, state broadcaster CCTV reported Monday. A total of seven suspected cases have been found in other parts of the country, including in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the southwest and in Shanghai.

The outbreak has put other countries on alert as millions of Chinese travel for Lunar New Year. Authorities in Thailand and Japan have already identified at least three cases, all involving recent travel from China.

South Korea reported its first case Monday, when a 35-year-old Chinese woman from Wuhan tested positive for the new coronavirus one day after arriving at Seoul’s Incheon airport. The woman has been isolated at a state-run hospital in Incheon city, just west of Seoul, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.

At least a half-dozen countries in Asia and three U.S. airports have started screening incoming airline passengers from central China.

Videos posted online show people in protective suits checking one-by-one the temperatures of plane passengers arriving in Macao from Wuhan. A man surnamed Yang who works for the Macao Health Bureau confirmed over the phone that such checks are taking place in the southern Chinese region.

China calls outbreak ‘controllable’

Many of the initial cases of the coronavirus were linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, which was closed as authorities investigated.

Since hundreds of people who came into close contact with diagnosed patients have not gotten sick, the municipal health commission maintains that the virus is not easily transmitted between humans, though it has not ruled out limited human-to-human transmission.

China’s National Health Commission said experts have judged the current outbreak to be “preventable and controllable.”

“However, the source of the new type of coronavirus has not been found, we do not fully understand how the virus is transmitted, and changes in the virus still need to be closely monitored,” the commission said in a statement Sunday.

EPA via AP via CP
Medical staff transfer patients to Jinyintan hospital in Wuhan, China, where patients infected with a new coronavirus strain are being treated in January 2020.

Coronaviruses cause diseases ranging from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). SARS first infected people in southern China in late 2002 and spread to more than two dozen countries, including Canada, killing nearly 800 people. The Chinese government initially tried to conceal the severity of the SARS epidemic, but its coverup was exposed by a high-ranking physician.

“In the early days of SARS, reports were delayed and covered up,” said an editorial in the nationalistic Global Times. “That kind of thing must not happen again in China.”

“We have made great strides in medicine, social affairs management and public opinion since 2003,” the editorial said. 

Xi instructed government departments Monday to promptly release information on the virus and deepen international co-operation.

Getty Images
A woman wearing a mask walks past the seafood market that has been linked to cases of a new coronavirus that is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China.

China has notified and maintained close communication with the World Health Organization and other relevant countries and regions, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news briefing.

Wuhan has also adopted measures to control the flow of people leaving the city, Geng said.

The virus causing the current outbreak is different from those previously identified, Chinese scientists said earlier this month. Initial symptoms of the novel coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.

On the Weibo social media platform, which is widely used in China, people posted prevention advice such as wearing masks and washing hands. State broadcaster CCTV recommended staying warm, increasing physical activity, eating lightly and avoiding crowded places. Some people said they had cancelled their travel plans and were staying home for Lunar New Year.

With files from Yu Bing and Hyung-jin Kim