BEIJING: Asian countries on Tuesday ramped up measures to block the spread of a new virus as the death toll in China rose to six and the number of cases jumped to almost 300, raising concerns in the middle of a major holiday travel rush.
Nations across the Asia-Pacific region stepped up checks of passengers at airports to detect the SARS-like coronavirus, which first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Fears of a bigger outbreak rose after a prominent expert from China’s National Health Commission confirmed late Monday that the virus can be passed between people.
Authorities previously said there was no obvious evidence of person-to-person transmission and animals were suspected to be the source, as a seafood market where live animals were sold in Wuhan was identified as the centre of the outbreak.
But the World Health Organization (WHO), which was concluding a fact-finding mission in Wuhan, was still being cautious, saying at a briefing in Geneva that “not enough is known to draw definitive conclusions about how it is transmitted”.
Spokesman Tarik Jasarevic warned though that “more cases should be expected” both in China and in other countries.
Hundreds of millions of people are criss-crossing China this week in packed buses, trains and planes to celebrate the Lunar New Year with relatives.
Almost 80 new cases have been confirmed, bringing the total number of people hit by the virus in China to 291, with the vast majority in Hubei, the province where Wuhan lies, according to the National Health Commission (NHC).
Other cases have also been confirmed in Beijing and Shanghai plus Guangdong, Zhejiang and Henan provinces.
Meanwhile, Wang Guangfa, one of the doctors on the NHC team investigating the epidemic, told Hong Kong TV station iCable News that he was receiving treatment after becoming infected.
The first case on the self-ruled island of Taiwan was also confirmed on Tuesday, with a woman taken to a hospital on arrival at the airport from Wuhan.
Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang told state broadcaster CCTV that the death toll had risen from four to six.
China said it would attend a special WHO meeting on Wednesday which will determine whether to declare a rare global public health emergency over the disease, which was also detected in Thailand, Japan and South Korea among four people who had visited Wuhan.
The coronavirus has caused alarm because of its genetic similarities to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
At four airports in Thailand, authorities introduced mandatory thermal scans of passengers arriving from high-risk areas of China. Anyone exhibiting signs of fever will be quarantined for 24 hours for monitoring. — AFP