Chinese health experts confirmed Monday that a new coronavirus is contagious, raising fears that the virus could spread quickly among people.
China's National Health Commission said the virus, which causes a type of pneumonia, can be transmitted person-to-person and not just from animals to people, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Earlier Monday, Chinese health officials confirmed 136 new cases of the newly discovered virus — a huge spike — over the past three days, including the first cases in the capital, Beijing, and Shanghai.
Heath officials in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, say the number of cases now exceeds 200. Most of the confirmed cases are described as mild, but three deaths have been reported.
South Korean health officials said Monday they confirmed a case in a 35-year-old woman who flew from Wuhan to Incheon, South Korea. Thailand and Japan have also confirmed cases.
Indonesia's Health Ministry says it has increased health screenings of passengers from China at airports and ports to try to prevent the spread of the virus into Indonesia. The ministry's disease control and prevention director general, Anung Sugihantono, told VOA that the Health Ministry is monitoring travelers, particularly those from China, with a thermal scan as well as distributing health alert cards.
On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started screening passengers arriving from Wuhan at three U.S. airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Airports in Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Singapore are also doing the same.
Chinese and U.S. health officials are particularly concerned because many of the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens are expected to travel for the Lunar New Year holiday that starts Jan. 25, both inside China and beyond.
A coronavirus is one of a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS, which also started in China, killed nearly 800 people globally during an outbreak nearly 20 years ago.
Chinese health experts say they know little about the new strain, dubbed 2019-nCoV. They suspect the outbreak started in a Wuhan seafood market, which also sold other animals such as poultry, bats, marmots and wild game meat. The World Health Organization has said an animal source seemed to be "the most likely primary source" with "some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts." The WHO is convening an emergency committee Wednesday to discuss the situation.
Doctors in Wuhan, China's seventh most populous city, have stepped up screening for suspected cases of pneumonia. They are urging people to be more conscious of their hygiene and to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.
Health officials are urging caution but say there is no reason to panic. The WHO is not recommending against travel to China, and China's National Health Commission says the current outbreak is "preventable and controllable."
Of the new cases announced in the past few days, all involve adults ages 25 to 89. About half are male (78) and half are female (75), according to the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, which translated the Wuhan health commission's statement.
Sasmito Madrim in Jakarta contributed to this report.