Heightened precautions are being taken in China and elsewhere as governments strive to control the outbreak of a novel coronavirus that threatens to grow during the Lunar New Year travel rush.
Anxieties around the disease have intensified after Chinese government expert Zhong Nanshan revealed on state television that the virus can be spread between humans. Authorities had previously said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.
So far, four people have died, and more than 200 others have been infected.
The new type of coronavirus appears to have originated in the central city of Wuhan, which has reported 198 cases, including all of the fatalities. Others who have been diagnosed in Beijing, Shanghai and southern Guangdong province had also visited Wuhan.
Internationally, four cases of coronavirus have been confirmed among Chinese travellers in South Korea, Japan and Thailand.
Concerned about a global outbreak similar to Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), a different coronavirus that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003, numerous nations have adopted screening measures for travellers arriving from China, especially those from Wuhan.
Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said his country will be increasing airport screening.
Australia receives a significant number of travellers from China, including three direct flights a week from Wuhan into Sydney, and these flights will be met by border security and biosecurity staff for assessments.
Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and other places with extensive travel links to China are also enacting stricter screening measures. At least three US airports have started screening incoming airline passengers from central China.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said: “We need to step up our caution levels as the number of patients is continuing to rise in China.
“Please take every possible precaution.”
The first cases identified late last month were among people connected to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. The first patients were suspected to have contracted the virus from animals, but human-to-human transmission was confirmed late on Monday.
Mr Zhong, a government expert who helped expose the scale of Sars, told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV that two people in Guangdong province caught the virus from family members.
Fifteen medical workers have also tested positive for the virus, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced. Previously, the commission said no-one who came into close contact with patients, including health professionals, were infected.
Chinese president Xi Jinping instructed government departments to promptly release information on the virus and deepen international cooperation.
When Sars first infected people in southern China, the Chinese government initially tried to conceal the severity of the epidemic, which ended up killing nearly 800 people. The cover-up was exposed by a high-ranking physician.
Gabriel Leung, dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said Chinese authorities have responded much more quickly this time.
He said: “Our underlying assumptions are, the force of infection is very different now … because so many public health measures have been undertaken and so many interventions have been executed.”
Professor Leung, who was heavily involved in the response to Sars, said modelling shows that cases will multiply over the coming weeks but the outbreak will gradually lose momentum as precautionary measures take effect.
Initial symptoms of the novel coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.