A Chinese government health expert has confirmed that the Wuhan coronavirus, which is rapidly spreading across China and to neighboring countries, is capable of being transmitted between human beings.
"We have now confirmed that human-to-human transmission is happening," Zhong Nanshan of China's National Health Commission told journalists on Monday. "This has happened in two places: in Guangdong [province] and in Wuhan."
Zhong, an expert in respiratory illnesses, said two people in the southern province of Guangdong had caught the virus from family members, according to a video clip broadcast by state-run CCTV.
"We have also confirmed that healthcare workers have been infected ...14 healthcare workers who were involved in various forms of care of patients with the novel coronavirus (nCoV) have now been infected with it."
Zhong's announcement came as dozens of new cases of the Wuhan coronavirus were confirmed across China and in neighboring countries as the Lunar New Year travel rush—which sees hundreds of millions take to planes, trains and automobiles to make it home by the evening of Jan. 24—got under way.
A video clip shot by a bystander inside a Wuhan hospital showed healthcare workers in full protective gear standing around a patient's bed.
"[Surely] it's not such a big deal ... it's pretty scary," comments someone, clearly audible on the soundtrack of the clip.
Passengers from China screened
While the majority of cases are still being traced to Wuhan, cases of nCoV have been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where the authorities are screening anyone coming in from China in a bid to identify potential cases and isolate them.
Staff in Hong Kong's West Kowloon High-Speed Rail Terminus were wearing surgical masks, and recorded public messages played over and over on the tannoy.
"This is an appeal from the Hong Kong department of health," the announcement said. "In response to the recent pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province, tourists should avoid visiting ... markets and maintain good personal hygiene at all times."
A Hongkonger who gave only a nickname Sammi was also wearing a surgical mask, in preparation for a trip to visit relatives in the southeastern province of Fujian.
She said it's impossible to know whether the authorities are covering up the true extent of the epidemic, however.
"We can't tell whether the government is giving us true or false information," Sammi said. "The numbers could be much bigger than [they are saying] and there could be far more cases in the hospitals."
Food and health secretary Sophia Chan told a news conference that the authorities are stepping up surveillance of suspected cases coming from mainland China, and requiring travelers from Wuhan to fill out health declaration forms.
"The department of health will further expand the scope of monitoring to cover anyone who has visited Hubei, and will continue to monitor all people who have visited mainland hospitals," Chan said.
"A passenger health declaration system will be implemented for round-trip flights to Wuhan, requiring all passengers arriving from Wuhan by air to fill out and submit health declaration forms," she said.
"We will also be implementing various strategies for the containment of infectious diseases, and cooperating with the department of health to report, isolate, and test at an early stage," Chan said.
South Korean media reported on Monday that the country had its first confirmed case of nCoV, a 35-year-old woman from Wuhan who arrived at Incheon International Airport on Sunday aboard a Southern Airlines flight.
She was placed in isolation after presenting with a high fever, and was confirmed to be infected with nCoV the following day.
Airports around the world are stepping up preventive measures, including in Taiwan, Canada, and the United States.
Cases top 200
The number of confirmed cases has topped 200, prompting Chinese president Xi Jinping to call on all government departments to take the outbreak seriously.
“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously," Xi said in comments broadcast by CCTV. "Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people's lives and health first."
In Wuhan, an additional 136 cases have been confirmed in the city, raising the total to 198. Three people have died so far.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the China CDC in Beijing said that the virus has an 80 percent similarity with the coronavirus responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people in 2002-2003, but is a separate virus with a different genetic sequence.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper reported suspected cases in Shanghai and Shenzhen, with at least two suspected cases in isolation at the Shenzhen No. 3 People's' Hospital.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan, Wong Lok-to, Lau Siu-fung and Lu Xi for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.