China says virus spreading between humans as death toll climbs

People wearing masks walk through an underground passage to the subway in Beijing, China on Monday.
NO RISKS People wearing masks walk through an underground passage to the subway in Beijing, China on Monday.

China has confirmed human-to-human transmission in the outbreak of a new SARS-like virus as the number of cases soared, and authorities on Tuesday said a fourth person had died.

The news came as the World Health Organisation said it would consider declaring an international public health emergency over the outbreak.

The coronavirus, which has spread to three other Asian countries and infected more than 200 people in China, 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.

The discovery of human-to-human transmission comes as hundreds of millions of people are criss-crossing the country in packed buses, trains and planes this week to celebrate the Lunar New Year with relatives.

Enhanced screening measures including fever checks have been set up at airports in Australia, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and the US, with particular attention on arrivals from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Health authorities there, where a seafood market has been identified as the centre of the outbreak, said on Tuesday that an 89-year-old man became the fourth person to die from the virus, and that 15 medical staff had been infected.

A second case was also confirmed in Shanghai on Tuesday, while five people have been diagnosed with the illness in Beijing.

The virus has also reached Japan, Thailand and South Korea, with four people hospitalised after visiting Wuhan.

A man showing symptoms of the disease who had travelled to the Chinese city has been put in isolation in Australia as health officials await test results, authorities said Tuesday.

Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at China’s national health commission, confirmed that the virus was being transmitted between humans, state media reported late Monday.

The WHO had previously identified animals as the likely primary source, but had warned of “some limited human-to-human transmission”.

Zhong told CCTV that patients can contract the virus without having visited Wuhan.

He also said 14 medical staff had been infected.

The WHO said a key emergency committee would meet on Wednesday to determine whether to declare an international public health emergency.