The World Health Organization could declare an international public health emergency over the outbreak of a SARS-like virus in China.
News of the WTO move came only hours after it was confirmed that the total number of people diagnosed with the new virus had climbed to 291 after it was first discovered in the Chinese central city of Wuhan.
There have been nearly 80 new confirmed cases of the virus that has so far killed six people, with more than 900 still under medical observation, said China’s National Health Commission.
Already the new coronavirus strain has caused alarm because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong between 2002 and 2003.
Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at China’s National Health Commission who helped expose the scale of the SARS outbreak, pointed out that patients could contract the new virus without having visited Wuhan.
“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 and reported by the AFP news agency.
During the Chinese New Year period, which starts this week, more than 2,100 flights will depart from Wuhan, home to 11 million people. Most of the destinations will be Chinese cities, according to the flightradar24 website.
But at least 205 flights are for overseas destinations, including Thailand, which will receive 54 flights between January 20 and 27, the website said.
Other destinations in Southeast Asia are Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. But Wuhan airport has “non-stop passenger flights scheduled to 109 cities in 20 countries.”
In Australia, a man showing symptoms of the virus after visiting China is being held in isolation at his Australian home. A Queensland Health spokesperson said the patient had recently returned from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
There are only three direct flights each week between Wuhan and Australia, all landing in Sydney. But Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said the screening program could be expanded to other flights from China carrying a high proportion of passengers from Wuhan.
“Many people who have this may present as asymptomatic. So it’s about identifying those with a high risk and making sure those who have a high risk know about it and know how to get medical attention,” he told a media conference in Canberra.
“There’s no way of preventing this getting into the country if this becomes bigger.”
Countries and cities elsewhere in the region are beefing up screening procedures. On the frontline is Hong Kong, which has increased security, according to the city’s government.
Because of the frequent flow of people between Hong Kong and the mainland, steps have been put in place to avoid people being infected, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said on Tuesday. The government has prepared for worst-case scenarios and would not underestimate the situation, he said.
Cheung emphasized that Hong Kong had not seen a confirmed case of the Wuhan disease, although 106 suspected cases were reported. He said when the first confirmed case was reported in the city, the Hospital Authority and Health Department would launch an emergency plan and allocate a specialized clinic in each of the seven districts to streamline patient flow.
However, Ho Pak-leung, the president of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection, said on Tuesday the Hong Kong government should not wait for a confirmed case before launching all the measures. It should improve the health declaration system and promotion about public hygiene, Ho said.
The amount of information disclosed by the mainland government about the Wuhan disease was insufficient and missed a lot of clinical data, Ho said. The worst situation for Hong Kong was that a “super-spreader” would be seen and cause dozens of cases within a short time, he added.
On Monday evening, China’s President Xi Jinping called on all provincial and municipal governments to carry out anti-epidemic measures against the Wuhan disease and ensure public hygiene, especially during the Chinese New Year holidays.
Premier Li Keqiang said local governments should disclose information about the disease objectively and in a timely manner.
On Monday, the Health Commission of Guangdong province announced 13 new cases of Wuhan disease were reported in the southern China province – eight cases in Shenzhen, three in Zhuhai, one in Zhenjiang and another in Huizhou.
Of the 13 cases, 11 people had visited Wuhan, while the remaining two had close contact with the infected, it said. Four patients were in serious condition and two were in critical condition.
On Tuesday morning, the Wuhan Health Commission said as of the end of Sunday, there had been 198 confirmed cases, 25 of them had recovered and left hospitals and four people had died. Of the remaining 169 patients, 35 were in a serious condition and nine were in a critical condition.
The commission also said in a Weibo post that 15 infected people were medical staff with another one a suspected case. It said all 16 people were in quarantine and only one was in a critical condition.
The National Health Commission said as of 6pm on Monday, there had been 217 cases of Wuhan disease in the mainland, including 198 confirmed cases in Wuhan, five in Beijing and 14 in Guangdong province, as well as two suspected cases in Shanghai and five more in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangxi and Shandong provinces.
With additional reporting by AFP
Read: Hong Kong to check travelers coming from Wuhan