China has said that 440 people have now contracted a mysterious Sars-like virus that has killed nine people, as the government unveiled measures to attempt to rein in the spread of the disease.

China’s national health commission, in its first major press briefing since the outbreak was detected in late December, said the virus is mainly passed through the respiratory tract and the nation was now at the most critical stage of prevention and control.

“The virus may mutate, and there is a risk of further spread of the virus,” said Li Bin, deputy director of the commission.

China is in the midst of a public health crisis as a new strain of coronavirus, from the family of viruses that gave rise to Sars, has swept the country. The World Health Organisation is convening an emergency meeting later on Wednesday to decide whether the virus should be deemed a global public health emergency.

In the last week, the number of confirmed infections has more than tripled and cases have been found in 13 provinces, as well as the municipalities Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin.

The nine deaths have all taken place in Hubei province. The commission said more than 2,000 close contacts have been identified and 1,394 were under current medical watch.

Li said the uptick in cases was the result of deeper understanding of the disease and improvements in screening for it. Wuhan, the central Chinese city in Hubei province where the outbreak is believed to have originated in a market, has been put under tighter supervision, Li said, with the sale of live poultry banned. Wild animals and poultry are no longer allowed in the city, he said.

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The local government has cancelled public activities during the holiday, including the annual prayer-giving at the city’s Guiyan Temple – which attracted 700,000 tourists last year. Tour groups heading out of the city have also been cancelled.

Wuhan’s mayor Zhou Xianwang urged residents to not leave the city and visitors to avoid it so that the possibility of transmission can be reduced.

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

Fever scanners have been set up at the city’s train station and airport and officials check the temperatures of drivers at highway checkpoints, while outbound tour groups have been banned from leaving the city of 11 million people.

The commission noted the virus is being treated as a class A disease, which means authorities can quarantine patients and put affected areas on lockdown.

Still, authorities are concerned that the upcoming spring festival holiday, when China celebrates Lunar New Year on 25 January and hundreds of millions will criss cross the country, could exacerbate the crisis. The public have been advised to avoid densely populated areas.

“Spring festival is just around the corner … which objectively increases the risk of the disease spreading and the difficulty of prevention and control. We must not be careless, and we must be highly vigilant,” he said.

Li said the government had implemented measures to prevent further spread, including adding temperature checks, minimising large crowds, more screening of potentially infected patients and more protections for health workers.

The virus has also been confirmed outside of China, in the US, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. On Wednesday, Thailand confirmed four new cases of the virus while Macau reported its first.

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Late on Tuesday, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen appealed to citizens not to visit central China. “I want to call on our nationals please not to visit this region if not necessary,” Tsai Ing-wen wrote on her Facebook page late on Tuesday, referring to Wuhan.

North Korea has also banned foreign tourists to guard against the spread of a new virus from China, a tour operator said. The temporary closing of the North Korean border would begin Wednesday, according to Young Pioneer Tours.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said on Wednesday that it will allow cabin crew to wear surgical masks on mainland flights, after a flight attendant union said it had been flooded with messages of concern from members.



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