BEIJING: The death toll from a new SARS-like virus that has infected hundreds in China rose to 17 on Wednesday, as authorities urged people to steer clear of the city at the centre of the outbreak.

The coronavirus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Synd­rome), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

With hundreds of millions of people travelling across China this week for the Lunar New Year holiday, the National Health Commission announced measures to contain the disease — including sterilisation and ventilation at airports and bus stations, as well as inside planes and trains.

In Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic, large public events were cancelled and international football mat­ches were moved to a new location. Visitors were urged to stay away, while residents were advised to not to leave the central city, which is home to 11 million people.

“If it’s not necessary we suggest that people don’t come to Wuhan,” Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang told state broadcaster CCTV.

The illness is mainly transmitted via the respiratory tract and there “is the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease”, health commission vice minister Li Bin told a news conference in Beijing.

More than 500 cases have now been reported, with the majority in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province.

The virus has now infected at least 444 people in Hubei province alone, said provincial officials at a press conference, adding that the death toll had risen from nine to 17.

Major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing have also reported cases, as well as provinces in north-eastern, central and southern China.

The disease has also been detected in the United States, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Macau.

The Chinese government has classified the outbreak in the same category as the SARS epidemic, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the illness and the potential to implement quarantine measures.

But they still have not been able to confirm the exact source of the virus.

“We will step up research efforts to identify the source and transmission of the disease,” Li said, adding that “the cases are mostly linked to Wuhan”.

Countries have intensified efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen — known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Passengers are facing screening measures at five US airports and a host of transport hubs across Asia. Britain and Italy on Wednesday announced enhanced monitoring of passengers from Wuhan.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2020

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