Commuters wear protection masks inside a subway train in Hong Kong, Jan. 7, 2020.
Commuters wear protection masks inside a subway train in Hong Kong, Jan. 7, 2020.

Health officials in China say an outbreak of pneumonia in the central city of Wuhan has been caused by a new strain of the virus that led to the deadly SARS outbreak over a decade ago.

State-run Xinhua news agency says a team of scientists identified the new type of coronavirus after tests run on 59 people who have been hospitalized since early December.  The World Health Organization issued a statement Wednesday confirming the preliminary discovery of the virus.

Health officials in Hong Kong say as many as 38 people have been hospitalized in recent days after returning from Wuhan with flu or pneumonia-like symptoms.  

The outbreak comes just days before the Lunar New Year, when millions of Chinese will be traveling by planes, trains or buses to celebrate the holiday.  An official with China's transportation ministry says the agency will begin efforts to disinfect public transportation stations and cargo hubs to prevent the spread of the virus.

More than 8,000 people were sickened between 2002 and 2003 during an outbreak of sudden acute respiratory syndrome in China and Hong Kong, killing nearly 800 people and sparking a global health panic.  Another coronavirus has been linked to MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, that has killed 851 people and sickened nearly 2,500 since it was first appeared in 2012.