UPDATE: Worries in China as 17 killed by new coronavirus

Medical staff transfer a patient to Jin Yintan hospital in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where a new coronavirus has sparked an outbreak. (Photo: ScienceNews.org)

The death toll from the novel coronavirus (2019n-CoV) in Wuhan, China has risen to 17 as of Wednesday, January 22, and health officials are advising residents in the city to avoid public gatherings or large crowds.

China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper reports, in local time, that there are 548 confirmed cases of the virus across 13 provinces, hitting the Wuhan-centred Hubei jurisdiction the hardest.

Health officials in Beijing are becoming increasingly concerned that the deadly coronavirus could spread further during the Lunar New Year celebrations.

According to deputy director of China’s National Health Commission, Li Bin, the highly contagious novel coronavirus could pose an even greater health emergency if it mutates.

Vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission Li Bin (Photo: Yahoo! News)

“There has already been human-to-human transmission and infection of medical workers,” Li said at a news conference with health experts.

“The virus is mainly transmitted through the respiratory tract. It may mutate and there is risk of further spread,” he added.

The Wuhan coronavirus has been detected in six countries since emerging in December 2019: China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and the US.

In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has activated its emergency operations as the first US case was recorded in the state of Washington on Tuesday.

Speaking on a conference call with US media, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, Dr. Nancy Messonnier said that at least for now, while 2019-nCoV spreads at an alarming rate the virus does not pose a risk to Americans.

“The confirmation that human-to-human spread with this virus is occurring in Asia certainly raises our level of concern. But we continue to believe the risk of this novel coronavirus to the American public at large remains low at this time,” she said.

A section of the Atlanta-based Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) (Photo: James Gathany, Wikipedia)

With a new respiratory illness spreading in China and beyond, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called an expert panel to meet today at its Geneva headquarters.

According to the Associated Press, the Lunar New Year is China’s — and the world’s — busiest travel season. Officially, the holiday is this Saturday, but celebrations continue well into February.

About 400 million Chinese are expected to travel within and outside the country beginning at the end of the week.