A recently identified coronavirus has killed at least six people, Chinese authorities said Tuesday.
Previously, on Monday, China's health authorities said that 15 medical staff members in the central Chinese city had contracted the virus, confirming that it is spreading by human transmission and raising concerns that people at the most virulent stage of infection " so-called super-spreaders " could infect many others.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it would call an emergency meeting on Wednesday to decide whether the outbreak should be declared an international public health emergency.
The new strain of coronavirus was identified this month after a mystery pneumonia started striking people in Wuhan mid-December. It is so far known to have spread to Thailand, South Korea and Japan in addition to the cases in China.
The speed of the outbreak has raised fears of another epidemic on the scale of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) coronavirus, which killed more than 700 people around the world in 2002-03 after originating in China.
One of China's top Sars experts confirmed on Monday evening that the virus could be transmitted between humans, and that it was likely to have originated from wild animals.
The total number of infections reported in Wuhan " where a seafood and animal meat market is thought to have been the center of the outbreak " had reached 198 by Tuesday.
The total number of confirmed cases in mainland China stood at 218, with five in Beijing, 14 in Guangdong, and one in Shanghai. More suspected cases have been reported in Shanghai and Qingdao on the coast, Chengdu and Yunnan province in the southwest, and Guangxi in the country's south.
There were 106 suspected cases in Hong Kong, which borders Guangdong.
China's National Health Commission on Monday night upgraded the pneumonia caused by the new strain to a Class B infectious disease. However, it said it would use the stricter control measures for a Class A disease to handle the outbreak, meaning any infection nationwide must be reported within two hours and monitored.
A group of WHO experts had visited Wuhan to investigate the outbreak and meet health officials, it announced on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, on Tuesday morning. The visit coincided with another Wuhan trip by a delegation of Chinese health experts, led by one of China's top Sars specialists, Zhong Nanshan.
Zhong, director of the Guangzhou State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease, said on Monday night that the virus " identified as belonging to the same virus family as Sars " was transmitted between humans and was likely to have originated from wild animals.
Speaking on state television, Zhong said human-to-human transmission was behind one case in Wuhan and infections in two families in Guangdong province.
"The key to controlling the spread of the disease now is about preventing the emergence of a super-spreader (of the virus)," Zhong said.
According to Zhong, the priority for Wuhan " a city of 11 million people " was to curb the spread of the virus by banning people with symptoms from leaving the city.
Reports that the virus was spreading raised particular concern with hundreds of millions of people traveling across China this week for the Lunar New Year holiday. Wuhan itself has an international airport and is one of the country's major rail network hubs.
"At present, there is no special cure for this new coronavirus and (we are) conducting some tests with animals," Zhong said. "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."
Zhong's warning came as Chinese President Xi Jinping called on officials to do everything they could to stop the disease.
Chang An Jian, the official social media account of Beijing's top political body responsible for law and order, on Tuesday warned cadres not to cover up the spread of the virus, saying anyone who withheld information would face severe punishment and be "nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity."
Earlier on Monday, the WHO also warned that human-to-human transmission might have been behind the infection cases in China, but it did not change its earlier advice that it did not see grounds to restrict travel to or trade with China.
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Saturday that the infection was "preventable and controllable." The virus was not Sars, it said.
Confirmation of infections in other cities in China came as several countries and regions in Asia reported finding the virus in visitors since the Wuhan medical authorities first raised the alert on December 30 about what was then a mystery illness. No deaths have been reported overseas among the infected.
Additional reporting by William Zheng.
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