BEIJING — A newly identified virus originating in central China has spread to South Korea, killed a third person in China and reached at least three more population centers within the country, as the number of live cases has more than tripled—a major escalation in the outbreak of the pneumonia-like disease.
South Korean authorities confirmed Monday that a 35-year-old Chinese woman who had flown into the country from the Chinese city of Wuhan had contracted the coronavirus, part of a class of pathogens that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
The virus has also reached China’s capital, Beijing, in the north of the country, where two cases were identified, local authorities said.
Health authorities in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, also reported one confirmed case of the coronavirus Monday, and eight suspected cases there. Meantime, five suspected cases were reported by health authorities in coastal Zhejiang province, just south of Shanghai on the country’s east coast, in the cities of Wenzhou, Zhoushan, Taizhou and Hangzhou.
The sudden spread of the disease raises fresh concerns as tens of millions of Chinese citizens prepare to travel, many of them to their hometowns, for the annual Lunar New Year holiday. It is also likely to spark questions over the transparency of disclosures by Chinese health authorities.
Health authorities in Wuhan, the densely populated city of 19 million people at the epicenter of the outbreak, said Monday that the number of patients infected with the newly discovered coronavirus has jumped to 198, from 62 on Sunday. The statement said 35 of those cases were severe, while nine were critical.
A third patient, a man, died over the weekend, Wuhan authorities said, without offering any details. In the case of the two previous fatalities, authorities had said the men suffered from existing illnesses.
Chinese health authorities haven’t reached any conclusions about the new coronavirus’s origins and its spread. A number of patients were exposed to a large seafood and livestock wholesale market in Wuhan where the disease is believed to have first broken out, but others have said they didn’t visit the market and only came into contact with people in Wuhan.
The Wuhan market is close to the city’s main railway station, an important travel hub in the center of the country. While the new coronavirus is believed to be less serious than SARS, which killed hundreds of people after its outbreak in southern China in late 2002 and early 2003, the pneumonia-like virus is in the same class of pathogens and appears to be spreading quickly.
Chinese authorities haven’t ruled out the possibility of human-to-human transmission, although they have said the risk is low. The World Health Organization said Monday that the spread of the disease was likely the product of “some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts.”
An animal source seems the most likely primary source of this novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak, with some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts. pic.twitter.com/L57VUr5d3z
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 19, 2020
Wuhan authorities didn’t mention human-to-human transmission in their latest statement. But they recommended that people wear a face mask and pay attention to fever and coughing symptoms. In each of the new confirmed cases, the patients had traveled to Wuhan.
The Chinese patient in South Korea had flown into Incheon International Airport from the Chinese city the previous day, and was quarantined by airport authorities before being transferred to a medical center for treatment, according to South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The previous three patients that have been identified outside China—two Chinese tourists in Thailand and a man from Japan—had all traveled from the Wuhan area.
South Korean authorities are in the process of identifying crew members and other passengers who were in close contact with the Chinese patient during her flight. They received reports of seven people with coronavirus-like symptoms and have released four of those. Authorities are separately monitoring 14 patients, according to Jung Eun-kyeong, director of KCDC.
Health authorities in Beijing said that both patients there were in stable condition with no respiratory symptoms or abnormalities, including fever, following their return from Wuhan.
In Shenzhen, the confirmed case, a 66-year-old man who had returned from visiting relatives in Wuhan, checked into a hospital after suffering from fever and fatigue, according to a statement from the health commission for Guangdong province, where Shenzhen is located. The man is in stable condition, Guangdong authorities added.
Chinese authorities have said they expect more cases to be reported in the coming days. The national health commission said it has issued a new detection kit and is asking regional authorities to step up testing, which could uncover more previously unknown cases.
Authorities in Shanghai are also looking into possible cases. “We have strengthened screening and identification of some suspicious cases,” Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong said, according to Jiefang Daily, the city’s flagship Communist Party newspaper. He added that the government would announce cases once they are confirmed.
There is at least one unconfirmed case at a hospital affiliated with Tsinghua University in the northern Beijing district of Changping, but doctors have been instructed not to disclose information, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman said the hospital would disclose information based on the city government’s instructions.
A separate, independent estimate by scholars at Imperial College London said that more than 1,700 people in Wuhan are likely to have symptoms of the virus and could be infected with it, based on modeling of cases of the virus discovered in Thailand and Japan and estimates of the number of people passing through Wuhan’s international airport.
In the U.S., where no cases have so far been detected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection have begun screening people traveling from Wuhan for fevers, coughs or difficulty breathing.