A pneumonia outbreak that has infected more than 50 people in the Chinese city of Wuhan was caused by a coronavirus, which is the same kind of pathogen involved in the deadly Sars outbreak in 2003, Chinese state media said on Thursday.
The outbreak, which comes ahead of the lunar new year holidays in late January when millions of Chinese will be travelling to see their families, has caused alarm in the region. The virus has prompted widespread concern on Chinese social media and triggered memories of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, that infected more than 8,000 people worldwide and killed more than 700, including almost 300 in Hong Kong.
The World Health Organization said, in a statement issued on Thursday, the Chinese authorities believed the disease “does not transmit readily between people”, but noted that it could cause severe illness in some patients.
Chinese health officials said on Sunday that they had identified 59 cases, with seven patients in critical condition. There has been no further statement on the possible spread of the disease in China, nor on the health of those who were severely affected. However, state television said on Thursday that eight of those who had been hospitalised had been treated in Wuhan, “cured and discharged”.
Hong Kong, activated its “serious” response mechanism to the disease last week and like other parts of the region has ramped up screening at airports. Hong Kong legislators have called for more transparency from mainland Chinese health authorities about the outbreak.
Officials in China covered up the Sars outbreak for weeks before the growing death toll forced them to reveal the epidemic. International criticism of Beijing’s handling of the outbreak led to wide-ranging reforms to disease control methods in the country.
Sophia Chan, Hong Kong’s food and health secretary said on Wednesday that there had been 38 suspected cases in the territory. However, she said none had been confirmed as related to the Wuhan outbreak, adding that 21 patients had already been discharged from hospital.
The virus broke out between December 12 and 29. Some of those infected were employed at a market selling seafood and live animals in Wuhan that has since been closed for disinfection, according to Chinese disease control officials.
“The reported link to a wholesale fish and live animal market could indicate an exposure link to animals,” the WHO said earlier this week.
Coronaviruses in humans usually cause relatively harmless respiratory infections. However, two are deadly — Sars and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), which have each caused hundreds of deaths.
Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong