Updated at 5:45 a.m. ET
A newly identified strain of coronavirus has killed nine people in China, with 440 other confirmed infections, health officials in Beijing said Wednesday, as they expressed concern over its spread during the Lunar New Year celebrations.
China’s Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control said that while the virus does not appear to be as virulent as the one that caused a Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome pandemic 17 years ago, it is nonetheless “highly infectious.”
“The virus is mainly transmitted through the respiratory tract,” Li Bin, deputy director of China’s National Health Commission, which overseas the bureau, said at a Wednesday morning news conference in Beijing. “It may mutate and there is risk of further spread.”
Lunar New Year is China’s – and the world’s – busiest travel season. Officially, the New Year is this Saturday, but celebrations continue well into February. About 400 million Chinese are expected to travel within and outside the country beginning at the end of the week.
“During Chinese New Year, the surge [in people moving around the country] increases the risk of the epidemic’s spread and the difficulty of prevention and control. We must not take it lightly,” Li said, according to a translation in the South China Morning Post.
Li said residents of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, should avoid densely populated areas and public gatherings. Earlier, the Disease Prevention Bureau’s chief epidemiologist, Zeng Guang, urged an unofficial quarantine of Wuhan.
“We hope people can avoid going to Wuhan if possible and that people in Wuhan can stay there,” he said.
The virus, known as 2019-nCoV, was discovered last month in the central city of Wuhan. Since then, it has spread to other parts of China, and isolated cases have been found in Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the U.S. and Hong Kong.
Symptoms of infection include fever, dry cough, difficulty breathing, diarrhea and body aches.
Hong Kong confirmed its first case on Wednesday, local broadcasters reported. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways also announced that it would honor a request from the flight attendants union to allow cabin crew to wear surgical masks on all flights.
Earlier, Cathay had agreed to allow the masks only on flights to mainland China, but said Wednesday in a statement: “Due to the evolving information from health authorities, we will allow crew members and front-line airport employees to wear surgical face masks when on duty at their discretion.”
The airline also said it would allow passengers who are booked to and from Wuhan to cancel or reschedule flights for free through Feb. 15.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a man from Washington state who returned after a trip to Wuhan, China, on Jan. 15, had sought medical attention days later and is now in isolation at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash. State health officials have described his condition as “healthy.”
In an interview Wednesday on CNBC, President Trump said he had been briefed about the U.S. case. “It’s one person from China and we have it totally under control,” he said.
The CDC announced last week that it had begun screening passengers arriving from Wuhan at three airports, Los Angeles International, San Francisco International and New York’s JFK. On Tuesday, the CDC said it was adding Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson International and Chicago’s O’Hare International to the list and that all arrivals from Wuhan would be routed through those five airports.
At London’s Heathrow airport, a separate area will be set up to screen passengers from areas affected by the virus, Britain’s Transport Minister Grant Shapps said Wednesday.
The Health Commission’s Li said the sudden uptick in confirmed cases in China was due to more effective diagnosis. He said 2,197 people who were in close contact with infected patients were being tracked and that 1,394 of them are under close medical observation.
Meanwhile, the head of China’s Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control said Wednesday that the new virus had originated in wild animals sold at a seafood market in Wuhan.
The bureau’s director general, Gao Fu, referred to a paper published on Tuesday by a joint team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the People’s Liberation Army and the Institut Pasteur in Shanghai that concluded “the Wuhan coronavirus’ natural host could be bats … but between bats and humans there could be an unknown intermediate.”
The new virus and the SARS virus are both mutations of HKU9-1, a virus found in fruit bats, the researchers said, according to the South China Morning Post.
Previously, most scientists had believed that the Wuhan virus could not cause a SARS-like epidemic because the two viruses were genetically dissimilar.
The new study, however, concludes that the new virus, “although comparatively weaker” than SARS, binds to the same human enzyme that has been identified as the receptor for the SARS virus.
An animal-to-human transmission of the SARS virus – which originated in China and was spread across the globe by infected air passengers beginning in late 2002 and continuing into 2003 – has long been suspected, with bats a prime suspect, according to the World Health Organization.
During the 2002-2003 pandemic, SARS infected more than 8,000 people, with several cases in other Asian countries, Europe and North America, including nine in the U.S. The disease caused 774 deaths, mostly in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to the CDC.