BEIJING -- With millions of Asians traveling on Tuesday for the Lunar New Year holiday, authorities in China confirmed that a new virus could be spread through human contact, reporting 15 medical staff had been infected and a fourth person had died.
The chilling update on the coronavirus outbreak that began in the central city of Wuhan sent shivers through financial markets, as the World Health Organization called a meeting for Wednesday to consider declaring an international health emergency.
By the end of Monday the number of confirmed cases in China had climbed to 291, the National Health Commission said. Some 270 were in Hubei province. Wuhan, a city of 11 million people is the provincial capital.
The outbreak was also spreading to other cities, with 15 cases in southern province of Guangdong, five in the capital Beijing and two in Shanghai.
“Information about newly reported infections suggest there may now be sustained human to human transmission,” WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Takeshi Kasai said in an email statement.
The scare brought back bad memories of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that broke out in China in 2002/2003, resulting in the death of nearly 800 people in global pandemic.
Health authorities around the world have begun to step up screening of travelers arriving from China. Two cases have already been identified in Thailand, one in Japan and one in South Korea, while the Philippines reported on Tuesday its first suspected case.
Wuhan Municipal Health Commission confirmed a fourth fatality on Tuesday, disclosing that an 89-year-old man who had underlying health issues, including heart disease, died on Jan. 19.
Chinese authorities also confirmed for the first time that the virus could spread through human contact and said 15 medical staff had been infected.
The mounting anxiety was transmitted to regional markets. China's onshore yuan CNY= fell 0.6%, its biggest daily drop since Aug. 26, 2019, while airline and travel stocks fell across the region.
European shares also slipped on mounting concerns about the impact of the outbreak, with luxury goods firms particularly hard-hit on worries about weaker demand from Chinese consumers.
The virus can cause pneumonia, with symptoms including fever and difficulty in breathing. As those symptoms are similar to many other respiratory diseases, extra screening is needed.
The origin of the virus has yet to be identified, but the primary source is most likely animal, according to WHO. Chinese officials have linked the outbreak to a seafood market in Wuhan.
“The outbreak of a SARS-like coronavirus in Wuhan is developing into a major potential economic risk to the Asia-Pacific region now that there is medical evidence of human-to-human transmission,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific Chief Economist for IHS Markit, in an email statement.
So far, the WHO has not recommended trade or travel restrictions but such measures could be discussed at Wednesday’s emergency meeting.
China’s National Health Commission will also give an update on the outbreak at a press briefing at 10 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Wednesday.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China will attend the WHO meeting and share relevant information.
“China is willing to deepen its global cooperation and work with the international community to work together to deal with the epidemic,” Geng told reporters at a regular daily briefing.
Airport authorities in the United States as well as most Asian nations also are screening passengers from Wuhan.
Australia on Tuesday said it would screen passengers on flights from Wuhan, while Singapore announced it would quarantine individuals with pneumonia and a history of travel to Wuhan within 14 days prior to the onset of symptoms.
Queues for masks
Wuhan officials have been using infrared thermometers to screen passengers at airports, railway stations and other passenger terminals since Jan. 14.
Zhong Nanshan, head of the National Health Commission’s team of experts investigating the outbreak, said in footage shown by state television on Monday there was no danger of a repeat of the SARS epidemic so long as precautions were taken.
Images of long lines of people queuing to buy face masks were circulating widely on Chinese social media, where the outbreak was one of the top trending topics.
Some online vendors were limiting sales of masks and hand sanitizers as demand surged.
And Shanghai’s market regulator warned on Tuesday that it will punish speculators who hoard masks and other products used for preventing diseases, according to the Shanghai Observer - a web publication backed by a Communist Party newspaper.
Trip.com, China’s top online travel booking platform, said it would refund customers who cancel bookings in Wuhan this month, or whose travel plans are disrupted by quarantines or other regulatory efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.