Chinese scientists suspect a new type of coronavirus that has killed nine people and infected hundreds since December may have been transmitted during the illegal trade of wild animals, as the United States confirmed its first case of the disease.
Gao Fu, the director of China’s Disease Control and Prevention Center and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told journalists the virus is believed to have originated at a market in Wuhan, central China, from where it mutated and became transmissible from person to person.
“From what we know, the source was the wild animals sold at the seafood market,” Gao said. “The virus of this wild animal is gradually mutating.”
Beijing on Wednesday said 440 patients carrying the virus had been identified across 13 Chinese provinces.
It has also spread in the East Asia region, and the United States reported its first patient carrying the disease on Tuesday – a US citizen who had visited Wuhan.
Macau confirmed its first case, adding to infections detected in Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
North Korea has temporarily closed its border to all foreign tourists in response to the outbreak, according to a travel agency that operates tours to the country.
So far, all the patients carrying the virus outside China’s borders had travelled from Wuhan.
The new coronavirus belongs to the same family of viruses that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a disease that killed 800 people globally in a 2002-03 pandemic that also started in China.
The SARS coronavirus is believed to have been transmitted by civet cats, a type of wild animal that is considered a delicacy in parts of China.
Authorities didn’t say what animal they suspected the new coronavirus came from.
Fears about the spread of the disease are growing as millions of people are travelling to their hometowns this week to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which falls on Saturday.
Face masks were rapidly selling out in major Chinese cities on Wednesday, following Chinese authorities’ announcement earlier in the week that the coronavirus was transmittable from person to person.
Authorities are asking people to avoid travelling to Wuhan – a city with an estiamted population of some 11 million people – if possible.
The city on Tuesday imposed travel restrictions and said it had installed infrared thermometers at airports, railway and bus stations and was disinfecting public transport vehicles daily.
The World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva is expected to convene a meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak of the new virus constitutes a health emergency of international concern.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday urged the Chinese government to be transparent in sharing information about Wuhan pneumonia.
“Political concerns should not override the safeguard of human life,” Tsai said.
Beijing has tried to isolate Taiwan from international affairs and has campaigned to keep Taipei out of the WHO.