The virus, which was first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, is known to have infected more than 300 people and spread to at least three other countries already. On Monday, China’s National Health Commission confirmed that the Wuhan coronavirus can be passed from human-to-human and that medical staff had also been infected.
The disclosure followed news that South Korea had confirmed its first case, making it the third country outside of China to detect the virus. The three cases previously confirmed overseas, two in Thailand and one in Japan, all involved people who had visited Wuhan.
“One of the consequences of a more connected world is that outbreaks have the potential to spread internationally much more rapidly than was the case 50 years ago,” said Mike Turner, director of science at the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based global health charity.
More cases have also been reported within China, evidence that the outbreak has spread well beyond Wuhan, creating a risk of unpredictable further infection.
As of Tuesday morning, five cases have been confirmed in Beijing, two in Shanghai, and 14 in the southern province of Guangdong — all hundreds of miles from Wuhan. Additional suspected cases have been reported across the country, from eastern Shandong province to Sichuan province in the southwest.
Chinese scientists on January 8 identified the pathogen as a new strain of coronavirus, the same family as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In 2002 and 2003, SARS infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 in a pandemic that ripped through Asia, spreading as far as Canada.
During a news conference Monday, Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese government-appointed expert who helped discover the SARS coronavirus, said the infectiousness of the new Wuhan coronavirus was not as strong as SARS, but that the disease was “climbing” and suggested that the “death rate at the moment is not so representative.” Since December, four people infected with the Wuhan coronavirus have died.
Uncertainties about the Wuhan coronavirus — including its unidentified source — have prompted fears there may be more people infected than currently reported.
Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who heads the Wellcome Trust, said the outbreak is “extremely concerning.”
“It is possible that often mild symptoms, and probability of people being affected and infectious without experiencing symptoms, from this coronavirus may be masking the true numbers of people who have been infected, and the extent of person to person transmission,” said Farrar.
Initial symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus include fever and coughing — which are also common flu symptoms, a viral infection prevalent in the winter months. Some patients infected with the coronavirus also have difficulty breathing and invasive lesions on the lungs, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The WHO said it will convene an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the outbreak in China.