Wuhan virus: China confirms human-to-human transmission, says medical workers infected

Medical staff transfer a patient from an ambulance at the Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, on Jan 20, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - China's health commission said on Monday (Jan 20) that medical workers have been infected by the deadly coronavirus first discovered in the central city of Wuhan, confirming it can be transmitted between people.

"The current situation is that it is no longer animal to human transmission, but human to human," said Chinese pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan, who discovered the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) coronavirus in 2003 and now heads an expert panel under the health commission.

He cited a case in Guangdong, where the patient had not been to Wuhan but caught the virus from a family member. Dr Zhong also said 14 medical personnel helping with coronavirus patients have been infected by one carrier.

"The key to controlling the spread of the disease now is to prevent a super-spreader from emerging," Dr Zhong, director of the State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease, said.

Another member of the expert panel, virologist Gao Fu, said: "The virus is changing. The virus is adapting to the environment and adapting to humans."

The expert panel warned that the number of infections will increase with the Chinese New Year mass migration.

The World Health Organisation said on Monday that a key emergency committee would meet this week to discuss the spread of the virus across China after it reached three other Asian countries.

The Wuhan virus that has killed three people so far has spread to China's financial hub Shanghai with more cases reported elsewhere in the country.

According to state broadcaster CCTV, new confirmed cases have been found in Beijing and Guangdong, bringing the tally to five and 14 respectively in these two cities as of 6pm local time on Monday, while the figure remains at 198 in Wuhan - unchanged since the last official update earlier at 1pm local time.

Shanghai, in a separate press release posted on the website of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission on Monday, also reported its first confirmed case. This brings the total number of confirmed cases in China to 218.

The case in Shanghai, a city with a population of 24.2 million, is a 56-year-old woman from Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. She arrived in Shanghai from Wuhan on Jan 12 and was hospitalised and isolated on Jan 15 after showing symptoms of fever and fatigue. She was confirmed to have been infected by the virus called 2019-nCoV on Monday after testing positive.

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The patient is no longer feverish and her vital signs are stable, said the Shanghai press release.

CCTV also reported two suspected cases in Sichuan, one in Yunnan, two in Shanghai, one in Guangxi and one in Shandong.

A man wears a mask near the Tiananmen Gate Tower in Beijing, on Jan 20, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The announcements come as Chinese President Xi Jinping said the country would curb the spread of the outbreak of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus.

"People's lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed," state media quoted Mr Xi as saying.

2019-nCoV belongs to the same family of coronaviruses as Sars, which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002/03 outbreak that also started in China.

A Wuhan seafood market is believed to be the epicentre of the virus, and the World Health Organisation said an animal source is likely to be the "primary" culprit.

Authorities around the globe, including in the United States and many Asian countries, have stepped up screening of travellers from Wuhan.

Temperature checks at Singapore's Changi Airport will be expanded to cover all travellers flying in from China amid reports that the mysterious Sars-like virus has spread beyond Wuhan.

Last week, Thailand confirmed two cases of infection while Japan reported one, and South Korea on Monday confirmed its first case.

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