Some 200 people have been contaminated throughout the country, according to the Chinese authorities. These figures have been questioned by British researchers.
China reported on Monday (20 January) a third death from the mysterious virus that appeared last month, as the epidemic spread to the north and south of the country, just a few days before the Chinese New Year’s big crossroads.
According to the authorities, the outbreak has so far been confined to Wuhan (centre), a town of some 11 million people where the virus, from the same family as Sras, appeared last month.
But for the first time, Chinese health officials on Monday reported new cases in other cities across the country: two in Beijing (north) and another in Shenzhen, the southernmost metropolis facing Hong Kong. Some 200 people have now been infected throughout the country.
What these new cases have in common is that all those infected had travelled to Wuhan in recent weeks.
Closed seafood market
Patients hospitalized in the capital are in stable condition and are being treated for pneumonia, local health authorities say.
However, there is growing concern about the virus following the death this weekend of a third person since the beginning of the epidemic and a significant increase in the number of new cases in Wuhan (nearly 140, now totalling 198).
Nevertheless, the city’s health authorities are reassuring that the risk of human-to-human transmission of the virus is considered “low”, although it is “not excluded”.
The source of the epidemic appears to be a wholesale seafood and fish market in Wuhan, where several infected patients were working. It has since been closed and decontamination operations have taken place.
A new type of coronavirus
The outbreak comes in the run-up to the Chinese New Year festivities, the busiest time of the year for transport, when hundreds of millions of people travel by bus, train and plane to visit their families.
Despite the risks of spread, there are currently no restrictions on travel in China.
The strain in question is a new type of coronavirus, a family with a large number of viruses. They can cause mild illnesses in humans (such as colds) but also more serious illnesses such as Sras (severe acute respiratory syndrome).
Highly contagious, this virus killed some 650 people in mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
Official figures questioned by researchers
Concern is now perceptible abroad, where preventive measures are multiplying.
Since Friday, the United States has been screening flights from Wuhan at San Francisco and New York’s JFK airports – both of which receive direct flights from Wuhan – as well as at Los Angeles airport, where there are numerous connections.
Thailand, where two cases have been identified, has also tightened controls at its airports.
The Hong Kong authorities have tightened their border control measures at the Autonomous Territory’s borders, including the use of body temperature detectors.
This weekend, scientists at a research centre at Imperial College London, which advises institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO), questioned official figures, estimating that the number of cases probably exceeded 1,000 as of 12 January.
In reaching that conclusion, the researchers used the number of cases detected so far outside China (two in Thailand and one in Japan) to infer the number of people likely to be infected in Wuhan, based on data from international flights out of Wuhan airport.