Chinese officials confirmed Tuesday that six people have died from a pneumonialike coronavirus, while raising the number of confirmed cases of the illness to 300, sparking fears of an outbreak in the country. The virus, which was first confirmed on Dec. 31 in the city of Wuhan, is believed to have been transmitted from animals to humans, but Chinese health officials now say they have evidence that human-to-human transmission is also possible, potentially via saliva. The World Health Organization says the symptoms of the virus are fever, cough, and respiratory difficulties such as shortness of breath, all of which can, in serious cases, lead to pneumonia, kidney failure, and, in the most severe cases, death.
The potential for humans to spread the virus has heightened fears about containing the illness during the Lunar New Year in China, which officially starts this week and annually amounts to one of the largest movements of people in the world as residents pour out of China’s cities to go home for the holiday. Cases have already been detected beyond Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, with cases confirmed elsewhere in China as well as among people in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand who had traveled to Wuhan. Australia is also currently monitoring its first suspected case. The number of cases in China tripled this week as officials instituted testing in other parts of the country, though the vast majority of instances were in Wuhan.
“Many of the cases were connected to the Huanan Seafood Market, which also sold live poultry and exotic animal meats. Considered a likely source of the virus, the market was closed and disinfected,” the New York Times reports. “The health commission in Wuhan said on Sunday that the illness had also appeared in people who had not been exposed to the market, raising the possibility that the virus could be present elsewhere in the city.” The latest cases have prompted a number of airports to screen passengers traveling from the region, including airports in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as New York’s JFK. The WHO announced it has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday to assess whether the outbreak now constitutes an international public health emergency.