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Chinese Experts Suspect Coronavirus Originated in Bats


People wear masks at a market in Hong Kong, Feb, 3, 2020.

The new coronavirus that has killed at least 425 people in China may have originated in bats, Chinese scientists say.

A new study published Monday in the journal Nature said experts from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which specializes in the study of viruses, say the new virus is 96% genetically identical to a virus found in bats in southern China's Yunnan province.

The study said the new coronavirus is 80% genetically similar to the SARS virus that killed more than 800 people in 2002 and 2003.

Chinese officials do not know exactly how the virus could have been transmitted from animals to people, but believe open-air markets in China, where wild and domesticated animals are sold, may be a contributor.

As of early Tuesday, the coronavirus death toll in China stood at 425 with the number of confirmed cases exceeding 20,000.

A public service announcement that encourages people to wear face masks plays on a subway train during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Feb. 3, 2020.
A public service announcement that encourages people to wear face masks plays on a subway train during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Feb. 3, 2020.

There are about 150 confirmed cases in 23 other countries. On Sunday, the Philippines reported the first coronavirus death outside of China.

However, early Tuesday, Hong Kong reported its first death from the virus, a man who had traveled from Wuhan. Hong Kong shut nearly off land and sea border crossings with the mainland at midnight.

Officials took the action after more than 2,000 medical workers in the semi-autonomous territory had gone on strike, demanding all border crossings be closed completely. The workers' union threatened a bigger walkout Tuesday. Hong Kong was hit hard by severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002-03.

But China is upset that a number of countries are restricting travelers from China from crossing their borders.

Government spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused the United States of spreading fear and not offering any substantial assistance in response to the outbreak.

She said Washington has "unceasingly manufactured and spread panic," noting that the WHO has advised against travel restrictions.

President Donald Trump has offered to send experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to China, but Beijing has yet to accept the offer of help.

The United States began mandatory 14-day quarantines Sunday for U.S. citizens who had been in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. But non-U.S. citizens who have been in China over the past two weeks are barred.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said Monday the United States is already prepared to provide housing for up to 1,000 people who may need to be quarantined. He also said the United States is "always planning for eventualities and how we may be asked by civilian partners to assist."