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Coronavirus

China lifts virus death toll to nine and warns of mutation risks

Illness spreads to Macao and US, while Hong Kong reports 'highly suspected' case

China's Health Commission Vice Minister Li Bin attends a news conference on prevention and control of new coronavirus related pneumonia in Beijing on Jan. 22.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- The death toll from a new pneumonialike virus originating in China rose to nine on Wednesday, with more than 440 people affected across the country. Meanwhile, newly confirmed cases in Macao and the U.S., and a suspected case in Hong Kong, underscored concerns over how the coronavirus is spreading ahead of the heavily traveled Lunar New Year holidays.

Li Bin, vice minister of China's National Health Commission, at the first state-level news conference since the outbreak, said the new virus is mainly transmitted through respiratory contact, and evidence shows that the coronavirus is also spreading among members of communities. The virus first emerged in the central city of Wuhan and became public late last month.

"Most cases we have observed so far are related to Wuhan... but the virus might mutate, and there is risk for further spreading," Li said, citing difficulties in the control and prevention of the pneumonia. Wednesday's announcement marked a significant increase of 149 new cases and three additional deaths from the previous day.

Li said the surge is mainly due to a speedier diagnosis process. In addition to previously reported cases in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, the coronavirus has now also reached the U.S. and Macao.

Hong Kong Health Secretary Sophia Chan on Wednesday night reported a "highly suspected" case -- a Wuhan resident who arrived in Hong Kong by train a day earlier.

Chan said at a news conference that the 39-year-old man tested "preliminary positive" for the virus and that further tests were being conducted, adding that the patient was hospitalized and in stable condition.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that an adventure travel company based in China, Young Pioneer Tours, said that North Korea is temporarily placing a ban on foreign tourists due to the spread of the virus.

It is still not clear how powerful the coronavirus is compared with the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002-2003, but experts say -- albeit with caution -- that early symptoms appear to be less severe than SARS.

Gao Fu, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the same news conference with Li in Beijing that the authorities are still in the process of "learning about the new virus," and that it will take time to determine its lethalness.

But Gao said there is no evidence that the so-called super virus spreader, which significantly accelerated the transmission of SARS and other respiratory illnesses, has emerged. He said the topic remains a key area for scholars and government officials to monitor.

The Wuhan municipal government has urged travelers to avoid visiting the city at the moment and advised local residents to stay where they are.

Additional reporting by Stella Wong and Dean Napolitano.

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