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China reports fourth virus death and confirms human transmission

Illness reaches South Korea as Philippines investigates suspected case

Medical staff carry a box for a hospital in Wuhan, China, where patients are being treated for pneumonia caused by a new strain of coronavirus.   © Reuters

DALIAN, China -- The outbreak of a new coronavirus in China has claimed its fourth life, extended its reach within the country and spread to a fourth Asian nation, while a top health official confirmed human-to-human transmission.

Chinese health authorities announced on Tuesday that an 89-year-old man had died, marking the fourth confirmed death.

On Monday, Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory specialist who heads a government panel investigating the disease, had appeared on state broadcaster CCTV and declared there was "no mistake" that the virus can spread between people. Zhong cited two patients in Guangdong Province who had never visited Wuhan, the central Chinese city that is the epicenter of the virus.

"The patients were infected after their family members traveled to Wuhan and were infected by the virus," said Zhong. He also noted that fourteen medical personnel were among the patients.

South Korean health officials detected their first case on Monday, in a 35-year-old Chinese woman who flew into the country from Wuhan. Last week, two cases were reported in Thailand and one in Japan -- all linked to the Chinese city.

Taiwan, too, confirmed the first case of Wuhan virus on Monday. The Taiwan Centers for Disease Control said the female patient worked in Wuhan. She had reported to airport quarantine staff upon arrival from China.

In the Philippines, health authorities on Tuesday said they were investigating the case of a 5-year-old boy who had traveled with his mother from Wuhan to the central island of Cebu on Jan. 12. The boy, who was to study English there, was admitted to a hospital that day with a fever, sore throat and cough.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque told reporters the boy is still coughing but is stable. The patient tested "positive for non-specific pan-coronavirus assay" and a specimen has been sent to Australia to identify the specific strain, Duque said.

Back in China, the latest available statistics show that 218 people have been infected nationwide, with 198 in Wuhan.

Wuhan confirmed 136 new cases between Saturday and Sunday alone, with the patients between the ages of 25 and 89. Elsewhere, five people showed symptoms of the virus in Beijing as of Monday, along with 14 in Guangdong and one in Shanghai, Xinhua and other outlets reported.

Health officials in Beijing's Daxing district said on Monday that two patients who recently traveled to Wuhan showed symptoms of the coronavirus. Zhejiang Province in eastern China reported five suspected cases the same day.

On Sunday, officials confirmed that a 66-year-old Shenzhen man exhibited signs of the coronavirus after visiting Wuhan at the end of last year.

President Xi Jinping stressed on Monday that the health of Chinese citizens is the top priority. He ordered "resolute efforts" to stop the spread of the virus, indicating the level of concern in China's leadership.

The World Health Organization will hold an emergency committee meeting on Wednesday to assess whether the outbreak is an international health emergency, and consider measures to manage it. The WHO has yet to call for trade or travel restrictions, but the panel may do so or suggest other options for containing the virus.

The new coronavirus causes pneumonia in those who contract it, but the infection is not thought to be highly communicable, despite the uptick in patients.

Jiro Yasuda, professor at Nagasaki University's Institute of Tropical Medicine, thinks the virus has not suddenly become more infectious, but rather that some cases previously were unreported. "The illnesses were confirmed in clinical settings, and the number of reported cases increased," Yasuda said.

Some experts say that families and others close to coronavirus patients risk being infected themselves. Imperial College London released a study estimating over 1,700 cases through Jan. 12, based in part on traffic through Wuhan's main airport.

Chinese netizens have aired suspicions against state authorities. "If they'd responded sooner, wouldn't the infections be controlled?" a poster asked on Monday on the microblogging platform Weibo.

To detect abnormal body temperatures, Wuhan has installed over 330 thermal imaging scanners since Jan. 14 at the airport, as well as at bus and train stations.

But these measures seem belated compared with steps taken outside of mainland China. Authorities at Hong Kong International Airport started screening body temperatures on Jan. 3. Taiwanese health officials began performing on-board inspections for the virus on direct flights from Wuhan around the end of December.

China appears to be strictly controlling information that could cause panic. Unfavorable postings reportedly have been removed from Weibo, including one from an individual who complained of being refused entry at Wuhan hospitals due to the number of fever patients.

This censoring prompted one Chinese poster to write, "I don't believe the official data released by the government."

During the SARS outbreak that began in 2002, Chinese authorities announced the first case of severe acute respiratory syndrome roughly three months after confirming it. The delay elicited criticism from the international community.

Learning from those missteps, China shared genetic sequencing data on the coronavirus with other countries on Jan. 12. Experts from Taiwan and Hong Kong were allowed to visit Wuhan.

The increase in infections comes just before the Lunar New Year arrives on Saturday. An estimated 3 billion Chinese will travel during the roughly 40-day span marking the occasion.

Japan, which is bracing for a surge in tourists, called for a ministerial meeting on Tuesday to discuss the outbreak. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told his ministers to ensure even more thorough quarantine checks and to keep abreast of the latest developments.

Beijing, meanwhile, faces pressure to be transparent about the pathways for transmission, as well as the number of patients. A lack of confidence in the data risks creating disorder during the busy travel season.

Additional reporting by Cliff Venzon in Manila.

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