Chinese health authorities said Wednesday that at least 440 cases had been confirmed across the country, with three new deaths linked to the virus in Hubei, the central Chinese province of which Wuhan is the capital.
Officials in Washington state confirmed the first case on US soil Tuesday. Cases have also been reported in South Korea, Thailand and Japan, and suspected cases detected in Australia.
Li Bin, China’s national health commissioner, said Wednesday that officials are aware of around 2,200 cases of “close contact” with known virus carriers. Regarding suspected cases, 715 patients have been discharged while more than 300 patients remain on medical watch.
The disease is mainly transmitted “through the respiratory tract,” said Li, adding that “there is possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease.”
While there are indications that Chinese authorities are ready to ramp up controls on travel — including ordering that all trips to Wuhan be canceled and refunded — it remains to be seen whether the virus, already reported in around a dozen locations, can be reined in before the Lunar New Year travel period truly kicks in.
What we know about the virus
Speaking Wednesday, Li, the Chinese health official, said that Wuhan and Hubei provincial authorities should tighten the regulation of farm markets and wild animals. He also urged the public to avoid crowds and minimize large gatherings.
Chinese health officials said human-to-human transmission of the virus has been confirmed, raising the chance of its spread. In one instance, 14 doctors and nurses operating on a patient unknown to be carrying the virus were all infected with it, suggesting it can be spread relatively easily.
The true extent of the virus is unclear, and official figures may be an underestimation. A study by British researchers previously estimated — based on the spread of the virus overseas in a relatively short time — that the number of people infected in Wuhan alone was likely around 1,700.
With cases and suspected cases already reported across Asia and now as far afield as the US and Australia, containment efforts are being put in place in many travel hubs.
Wuhan alone has connections with more than 60 overseas destinations through its international airport, while Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, all of which have reported cases, have hundreds more.
Airports across Asia have stepped up temperature screening of incoming passengers, as have several hubs in the US, including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
With all indications that the virus has a relatively slow incubation time, however, these efforts may be insufficient to stop its spread.
Raising concerns about how difficult it is to detect those with the virus, even if they have some symptoms, a patient in South Korea told doctors there she had developed a fever and muscle pains on Saturday and was prescribed cold medicine by a doctor in Wuhan, before being sent on her way. She was later confirmed to have the coronavirus during a check in Seoul.
In the US, the National Institutes of Health is working on a vaccine for the new virus, though it will take at least a few months until the first phase of clinical trials get underway and more than a year until a vaccine might be available.
Scientists in Texas, New York and China are also at work on a vaccine, according to Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“The lesson we’ve learned is coronavirus infections are serious and one of the newest and biggest global health threats,” Hotez told CNN.
How to contain that threat will be a key point on the agenda for the WHO meeting Wednesday, which may recommend more stringent screening and possibly even quarantine measures.