MELBOURNE (BLOOMBERG) - A pneumonia outbreak in central China widened with more than 200 people now diagnosed with the new Sars-like virus, as health experts said there is now evidence that the illness is spreading from people to people.
With increased searching and testing for the novel virus among people with symptoms like fever and coughing, the number of cases in China surged over the weekend. Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, now has almost 200 confirmed cases, with three fatalities. Cases were also reported in Beijing and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
Across the region, South Korea detected its first case, according to news agency Yonhap, 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 on Friday (Jan 17), confirmed suspicions that the illness is being spread from people to people. There are no reports yet of health-care workers being infected, a sign that the virus is likely not as infectious as Sars, which killed almost 800 people 17 years ago.
"It is clear that there is at least some human-to-human 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," said Dr Takeshi Kasai, the WHO's regional director for the western pacific, in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Monday.
"We need more information to analyse that."
Countries across the world stepped up screening among arriving passengers ahead of the Chinese New Year festival that starts this Friday, a period of heightened travel for Chinese people. International airports in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco started screening from late Friday, joining cities in Asia that implemented the surveillance measure days after the outbreak was reported on Dec 31.
In Wuhan, health-care 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're going to see additional cases all around the world as folks look for it more," Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the US's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on Friday.
"It's highly plausible that there will be at least a case in the United States, and that's the reason that we're moving forward so quickly with this screening."
It's possible that more than 1,700 people in Wuhan have been infected with the virus, Prof Neil Ferguson and colleagues at Imperial College London said in a study on 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 widening of cases sparked a rally in Chinese drugmakers' shares on Monday. Antibiotic makers Jiangsu Lianhuan Pharmaceutical Co, Shandong Lukang Pharmaceutical Co and Shenzhen Neptunus Bioengineering Co 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 Lunar 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 on Monday, with Air China Ltd sinking as much as 7.8 per cent in Hong Kong.
The novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, has triggered alarm because of similarities with the one that sparked Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or Sars, 17 years ago. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people, and others that circulate among animal, including camels, cats, and bats, the CDC said. While rare, animal coronaviruses can evolve and infect people, and then spread between people.
The source and transmission routes of the 2019-nCov virus are still unknown, China's National Health Commission said in a statement on Sunday.
Some of the first group of patients in Wuhan worked or shopped at a seafood market where live animals and wildlife parts were also reportedly sold.
Provincial health authorities in Guangdong confirmed a case on Sunday in a 66-year-old Shenzhen resident who developed fever and fatigue on Jan 3 during a five-day trip to Wuhan.
Two cases have been confirmed in Beijing, according to a statement by a local health authority on Monday. The patients, who have a history of travel to Wuhan, have been hospitalised and are in stable condition.
Health authorities said that as of 10pm on Sunday, 25 of the city's 198 cases had been cured. A further three had been discharged from the hospital. Currently, 170 cases are being treated in isolation wards at various hospitals, of which 126 cases are mild, 35 are severe, and nine cases are critically ill.
Of the 136 patients reported over the weekend, 66 were male and 70 were female; the youngest was 25 years old and the oldest was 89. The most recent illness occurred before Saturday, and initial symptoms were mostly fever, cough or chest tightness, and difficulty breathing.
Chinese authorities said the outbreak is "still preventable and controllable", in an attempt to reassure the public as hundreds of millions of people prepare to travel ahead of the country's biggest annual festivities.