US confirms first case of Wuhan coronavirus on American soil; 9 dead, 400 affected in China
(Photo by MOHD RASFAN / AFP)

Washington: US health authorities on Tuesday announced the first case of a person on American soil sickened by a new virus that emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and intensified airport health screenings.

The man, a US resident in his 30s who lives near Seattle, is in good condition, according to federal and state officials. The man is being "hospitalised out of an abundance of precaution, and for short term monitoring, not because there was severe illness," said Chris Spitters, a Washington state health official.

The news came as Asian countries ramped up measures to block the spread of the new virus as the death toll in China rose to nine and the number of cases surpassed 400. China is about to embark on the Lunar New Year holiday -- a huge travel time for hundreds of millions of people. The man hospitalised in Washington state had travelled to the US from Wuhan, but did not visit the seafood market thought to be at the heart of the outbreak.

He entered the US on January 15 -- two days before health screenings for those travelling from Wuhan began at airports in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco -- and approached health authorities himself after reading news reports about the virus. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will now be deployed to two additional international airports, in Chicago and Atlanta.

All travellers on flights from Wuhan, either direct or connecting, will now be re-routed to the five airports with screening systems in place. Nations across the Asia-Pacific region stepped up checks of passengers at airports to detect the SARS-like coronavirus. Fears of a bigger outbreak rose after a prominent expert from China's National Health Commission confirmed late Monday that the virus can be passed between people.

China warns virus may spread as death toll hits 9

China warned on Wednesday that a SARS-like virus that has killed nine people, infected hundreds and spread to other countries could mutate, as authorities scrambled to contain the disease during the Lunar New Year travel season.

The new coronavirus has caused alarm for its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003. The illness is transmitted via the respiratory tract and there "is the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease," National Health Commission vice minister Li Bin said at a news conference in Beijing.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was to hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to determine whether to declare a rare global public health emergency over the disease, which has also been detected in the United States, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and South Korea. The Chinese government has classified the outbreak in the same category as the SARS epidemic, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the illness and the potential to implement quarantine measures on travel.

But they still have not been able to confirm the exact source of the virus, which has infected 440 people in 13 provinces and municipalities. "We will step up research efforts to identify the source and transmission of the disease," Li said. A prominent expert from China's National Health Commission confirmed this week that the virus can be passed between people.

However, animals are suspected to be the primary source of the outbreak, as a seafood market where live animals were sold in the central city of Wuhan was identified as ground zero for the virus. Countries have been intensifying efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen -- known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) -- as the number of cases jumped, raising concerns in the middle of a major Chinese holiday travel rush.

This week, China celebrates the Lunar New Year, the most important event in the Chinese calendar with hundreds of millions of people travelling across the country to celebrate with family. On Wednesday, the commission announced measures to contain the disease, including disinfection and ventilation at airports, train stations and shopping centres.

"When needed, temperature checks will also be implemented in key areas at crowded places," the commission said in a statement. Wuhan has urged people to stay away in a bid to contain its spread. Police were conducting spot checks for live poultry or wild animals in vehicles leaving and entering the city, state media said.

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 during last year's holiday. Tour groups heading out of the city have also been cancelled.

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