BEIJING • A pneumonia outbreak in central China has widened with more than 200 people now diagnosed with the new Sars-like virus, and health experts say there is now evidence that the illness is spreading from person to person.
Amid increased searching and testing for the novel virus among people with symptoms such as fever and cough, the number of cases in China surged at the weekend.
With the Chinese New Year just days away - a holiday season during which Chinese citizens rack up three billion trips across the country to reunite with family - the spread of the virus is likely to intensify.
Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak, now has almost 200 confirmed cases, including three fatalities. Cases were also reported in Beijing and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Across the region, South Korea detected its first case, adding to those found in Thailand and Japan last week.
The surge in cases, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) released guidance for diagnostic detection of the virus last Friday, confirmed that the new pathogen is being transmitted among humans, and not just from animals to humans as was originally hoped.
But there are no reports yet of healthcare workers being infected, a sign that the new virus, 2019-nCoV, is likely not as infectious as Sars, also known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed almost 800 people 17 years ago.
"It is clear that there is at least some human-tohuman transmission from the evidence we have, but we don't have clear evidence that shows the virus has acquired the capacity to transmit among humans easily," Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV yesterday.
"We need more information to analyse that."
Countries across the world stepped up screening of incoming travellers ahead of the Chinese holiday that starts on Friday, a period of heightened travel for the Chinese.
International airports in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco started screening passengers from late last Friday, joining cities in Asia, including Singapore, that implemented surveillance measures days after the outbreak was reported on Dec 31.
In Wuhan, healthcare workers spread out across the city of 11 million screening for symptoms among people on planes and at railway stations.
"This is a situation where we are going to see additional cases all around the world as folk look for it more," Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the US' Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters last Friday. "It is highly plausible that there will be at least a case in the United States, and that is the reason that we are moving forward so quickly with this screening."
It is possible that more than 1,700 people in Wuhan have been infected with the virus, Professor Neil Ferguson and colleagues at Imperial College London said in a study last Friday.
Their analysis was based on cases reported outside China last week, with the assumption that it takes five or six days for someone to feel unwell after being infected, and another four or five days for the infection to be detected.
The source and transmission routes of 2019-nCov are still unknown
The widening of cases sparked a rally in Chinese drugmakers' shares yesterday. Antibiotic makers Jiangsu Lianhuan Pharmaceutical, Shandong Lukang Pharmaceutical and Shenzhen Neptunus Bioengineering all rose by the 10 per cent daily limit in early trading.
Shares of companies in the travel and hotel sectors dropped on fears of a hit to tourism over the Chinese New Year, traditionally a peak period of spending for China's billion-strong consumer force.
Chinese airlines and Macau casino operators were among the biggest losers yesterday, with Air China sinking as much as 7.8 per cent in Hong Kong.