• A surge in cases on the eve of the country’s major annual holiday has prompted concerns about the spread of the disease
  • Here is a quick guide to what is known so far
Flight attendants wear masks on a flight from Beijing to Wuhan, the epicentre of an outbreak of a new coronavirus. Photo: Simon Song

Officials in China have confirmed that an outbreak of a new pneumonia-like illness that originated in the central city of Wuhan has been spreading from person to person and has infected health workers.

The previously unknown coronavirus has affected more than 300 people in various Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, and spread to other parts of Asia.

On Tuesday, Wuhan health authorities confirmed a sixth death in Wuhan from the virus and 15 cases among medical professionals, with one in a critical condition.

The spike in cases before Lunar New Year has raised fears that the virus could spread further as hundreds of millions of people travel around the country.

What is a coronavirus?

Medical experts in China identified the mysterious pneumonia-like illness as a new strain of coronavirus " 2019-nCoV " in early January.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses causing illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Coronaviruses commonly circulate in animals, but some can evolve to infect humans and spread between people. Only seven, including the new virus, are known to infect people, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are no specific treatments such as vaccines for coronaviruses but many symptoms caused by the viruses can be treated.

How many are affected?

Mainland China had 309 confirmed cases and six fatalities as of Tuesday evening. Most of the cases and all of the deaths were in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei province, with smaller numbers in a number of provinces and municipalities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province.

The first case was reported to the WHO on December 31, and is thought to have originated at a wholesale market in Wuhan selling seafood and other animal produce.

Taiwan confirmed its first case on Tuesday night.

Other cases have been reported in Thailand, Japan and South Korea. South Korea confirmed on Monday that a woman who had arrived from Wuhan had the virus. Two Chinese tourists in Thailand and a Chinese man working in Japan had previously been confirmed as infected.

Australia and the Philippines both reported their first suspected cases on Tuesday. A five-year-old child in the Philippine province of Cebu has been tested, while Australia has placed a man in isolation at his home in the northeastern city of Brisbane.

No deaths have been reported overseas.

What has the WHO said so far?

The WHO announced on Monday that it would hold an emergency meeting in Geneva on Wednesday to decide whether the outbreak should be declared an international public health emergency.

It has not recommended restrictions on travel to or trade with China as of Tuesday evening.

On Monday, the WHO warned that human-to-human transmission might have been behind the infection cases in China.

"An animal source seems the most likely primary source of this novel coronavirus outbreak, with some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts," it said.

Why is there such a concern?

The virus has caused alarm because of its resemblance to Sars, which infected more than 8,000 people globally and killed over 600 in mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-03.

Zhong Nanshan, a leading expert on communicable diseases in China and on the Sars virus, confirmed human-to-human transmission in at least one case in Wuhan and two cases of infection in Guangdong province.

He also said the infection of medical personnel was alarming and warned against the emergence of super-spreaders.

"We expect the number of infected cases will increase over the Lunar New Year travel period and we need to prevent the emergence of a super-spreader of the virus," state broadcaster CCTV reported Zhong as saying on Monday night.

So-called super-spreaders are people at the most virulent stage of infection who are more likely to spread the disease to others.

However, researchers at Britain's Imperial College London said it was likely there were substantially more infections than Chinese authorities had disclosed.

According to their calculations, published on the website of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, as of January 12, there were at least 1,723 people likely to have been infected with the new coronavirus.

What preventive measures can be taken?

Zhong has said that people who have no urgent business in Wuhan should avoid visiting the city.

That message was reinforced by professor Yuen Kwok-yung, from the University of Hong Kong's department of microbiology.

"The recommendations from Dr Zhong and the other experts are very clear. Wuhan is the infectious zone, so people should not go there unless it's necessary," Yuen told Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK on Tuesday.

To prevent the spread of the virus, the WHO recommends washing hands regularly, covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs.

It also suggests avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness.

Maria Van Kerkhove, of the WHO's emerging disease and zoonoses unit, recommends avoiding unnecessary unprotected contact with live animals, and thorough hand washing after contact with an animal.

Gabriel Leung, co-director of the University of Hong Kong's WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control, said masks should be part of preventive efforts.

"If you are ill, put on a mask. If you are going to a crowded place, put on a mask even if you are not ill," Leung said.

"If you have any symptoms, especially if you have travelled to Wuhan, please seek medical attention and be honest and open with your doctors."

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung

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