BEIJING—The head of a Chinese government expert team said on Jan. 20 that human-to-human transmission has been confirmed in an outbreak of a new coronavirus, a development that raises the possibility that it could spread more quickly and widely.
Team leader Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert, said two people in Guangdong Province in southern China caught the virus from family members, state media said. Some medical workers have also tested positive for the virus, according to the English-language state-run newspaper China Daily.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping called on the government to take every possible step to combat the outbreak.
“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” Xi said in his first public statement on the crisis. “Party committees, governments, and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first.”
Xi’s remarks were reported by state broadcaster CCTV on its main 7 p.m. evening news broadcast.
The spread of the viral pneumonia comes as the country enters its busiest travel period, when millions board trains and planes for the Lunar New Year holidays. The outbreak is believed to have started late last month when people picked it up at a fresh food market in Wuhan, a city in central China.
Authorities elsewhere also announced cases in other Chinese cities for the first time, such as Beijing and Shanghai. Cases have also been found in Guangdong, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the southwest.
Zhong said the two people in Guangdong had not been to Wuhan but fell ill after family members had returned from the city, the China Daily said.
The outbreak has put other countries on alert as millions of Chinese travel for Lunar New Year.
At least a half-dozen countries in Asia and three U.S. airports have started screening incoming airline passengers from central China.
Since hundreds of people who came into close contact with diagnosed patients have not gotten sick, the Wuhan municipal health commission maintains that the virus is not easily transmitted between humans.
China’s National Health Commission said experts have judged the current outbreak to be “preventable and controllable.”
“However, the source of the new type of coronavirus has not been found, we do not fully understand how the virus is transmitted, and changes in the virus still need to be closely monitored,” the commission said in a statement on Sunday.
Coronaviruses cause diseases ranging from the common cold to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS first infected people in southern China in late 2002 and spread to more than two dozen countries, killing nearly 800. The Chinese government initially tried to conceal the severity of the SARS epidemic, but its cover-up was exposed by a high-ranking physician.
“In the early days of SARS, reports were delayed and covered up,” said an editorial in the nationalistic Global Times. “That kind of thing must not happen again in China.”
Xi instructed government departments on Monday to promptly release information on the virus and deepen international cooperation.
The virus causing the current outbreak is different from those previously identified, Chinese scientists said earlier this month. Initial symptoms of the novel coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.
On the Weibo social media platform, which is widely used in China, people posted prevention advice such as wearing masks and washing hands. State broadcaster CCTV recommended staying warm, increasing physical activity, eating lightly, and avoiding crowded places. Some people said they had canceled their travel plans and were staying home for Lunar New Year.