A recently identified coronavirus has killed nine people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and infected 440 others nationwide, Chinese health officials said Wednesday as they attempt to clamp down on an outbreak that has spread past its borders.
China’s National Health Commission Deputy Director Li Bin increased the death count to nine after three people died since Tuesday, stating in a televised address that all the deaths occurred in Hubei province where the coronavirus was first detected late last month in the city of Wuhan.
The nearly 450 confirmed cases of the coronavirus were discovered in 13 provinces and more than 300 patients are currently under medical watch, he said.
“Our experts believe the cases are mostly linked to Wuhan,” he said.
Cases have also been reported in Japan, Thailand and South Korea with the majority of the patients connected to the outbreak city of Wuhan. The United States confirmed its first case of the disease on Tuesday.
Health officials in Wuhan first confirmed patients were falling ill with pneumonia caused by a mysterious virus on Dec. 31. The disease was identified about a week later as a coronavirus similar to the one behind severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed hundreds of people in China between 2002 and 2003.
The disease is believed to have originated from a now-closed Wuhan seafood market and it was originally thought only transferable by animals.
However, human-to-human transmission has been observed, raising fears of it spreading.
Li said medical workers in Wuhan have contracted the disease suggesting “community-based transmission” is possible but evidence shows that the disease is mainly transmitted through the respiratory tract.
However, the disease may mutate, he said, “and there is risk of further spread.”
The National Health Commission has upgraded the new strain of the coronavirus to a Class B infectious disease but Li said it will be treated as a Class A disease, which allows health officials to quarantine suspected cases and lockdown areas.
However, with Lunar New Year celebrations on Saturday with millions expected to travel throughout the country, China will be taking additional stringent measures to contain the disease including quarantine of patients and those they come into contact with and additional body temperature screenings at bus stops, airports and other populous venues, he said.
“We must not let down our guard and we must be highly vigilant,” he said.
The Wolrd Health Organization said the disease is a new coronavirus strain that has not been previously identified in humans and has called an emergency meeting for Wednesday to decide whether the outbreak meets the criteria of a public health emergency.