Cases of deadly coronavirus spike as officials confirm human-to-human spread

BEIJING — The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus climbed to close to 300 in China Tuesday as health authorities in Asia and around the world stepped up screening at airports, railway stations and on highways in an effort to stem the spread of the pneumonia-like disease.

On Monday, the head of a Chinese government expert team said human-to-human transmission of the virus had been confirmed.

Meanwhile, the number of those killed by the virus rose to six, with cases being reported outside China — including in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Officials at China’s National Health Commission confirmed 298 cases of the disease as of Tuesday evening — 270 of them are in the country’s central Hubei province, home to the city of Wuhan, which has seen the majority of the cases. The number of detected cases in China stood at 62 on Sunday.

Five more were reported in the capital Beijing, 14 in Guangdong, in southeast China, and two more in Shanghai, a global financial hub.

Seven more cases, two in Tianjin and 5 in Zhejiang provinces, were reported later Tuesday.

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Travelers pass through a health screening checkpoint at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on Tuesday.Emily Wang / AP

Officials said they were also looking into 54 suspected cases in 14 provinces of the country.

The outbreak comes ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year in late January, during which hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel domestically and overseas.

“More cases should be expected in other parts of China and possibly other countries in the coming days,” said World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Tarik Jasarevic, according to Reuters.

The virus belongs to the large family of coronaviruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002-2003 outbreak that also started in China, paralyzing transport and damaging Asian economies.

The source of the outbreak is still under investigation in Wuhan, WHO said.

The agency will be holding an emergency committee meeting on Wednesday to discuss whether the virus constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and formulate recommendations to manage the outbreak.

China’s National Health Commission will also be holding a briefing on the coronavirus outbreak Wednesday.

Over the weekend, three U.S. airports started screening passengers arriving from Wuhan to prevent the spread of the virus.

The South China Morning Post newspaper reported Tuesday that Beijing warned officials against covering up the spread of the virus, saying anyone who withheld information would face severe punishment and be “nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday it was “extremely crucial” to take every possible measure to combat the virus.

Eric Baculinao and Dawn Liu reported from Beijing; Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.