A mysterious respiratory virus that has killed at least three people and sickened more than 200 in China can be transmitted between humans, a Chinese government-appointed expert has said, fueling fears about the possibility of a deadly epidemic as millions prepare to travel for the Lunar New Year holiday.
Zhong Nanshan, head of the team set up by China’s National Health Commission to investigate the pneumonia-like virus, confirmed that at least two cases had been spread from person to person and medical staff had also been infected.
Authorities had previously said that the new strain of coronavirus, which was traced by health officials to a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, was primarily passed from animals to humans.
But at least two people have become infected in recent days, despite living hundreds of miles from Wuhan.
“The current cases show there is definitely human-to-human transmission,” Zhong told Chinese state-run CCTV, explaining that two people in China’s Guangdong province were infected by a family member who had recently returned from Wuhan.
Zhong, who helped discover the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (SARS) in 2003, said the infectiousness of this virus was not as strong as SARS, but that the disease was “climbing” and suggested that the “death rate at the moment is not so representative.”
SARS infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 in a pandemic that ripped through Asia in 2002 and 2003.
Earlier on Monday, Chinese authorities reported that the number of cases had tripled over the weekend to 218. The outbreak has spread to Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzen, hundreds of miles from Wuhan, where the virus first surfaced last month.
Thailand has also reported two cases, while Japan and South Korea reported one each, taking the global total to 222.