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China mystery virus claims sixth victim as holiday travel stokes risk

BEIJING — The death toll from a mysterious flu-like virus in China climbed to six on Tuesday as new cases surged beyond 300 and authorities fretted about the added risk from millions of Chinese traveling for the Lunar New Year holiday.

Round the world, airports tightened screening of travelers from China as officials confirmed the coronavirus strain is contagious between humans.

The World Health Organization (WHO) called a meeting for Wednesday to consider declaring a global health emergency.

The outbreak, which began in the central city of Wuhan, also sent shivers through financial markets as investors recalled the fallout from China’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002/2003 that it initially covered up.

The SARS coronavirus killed nearly 800 people then.

“We’ll stay at home during the holiday. I’m scared as I remember SARS very well,” said Zhang Xinyuan, who had been bound from Beijing for the Thai resort of Phuket before she and her husband decided to cancel their air tickets.

Authorities have confirmed more than 300 cases in China, mostly in Wuhan, a provincial capital and transportation hub, where the virus may have originated at a sea food market.

There have been six deaths in that city, Mayor Zhou Xianwang told Chinese state television on Tuesday.

The virus has been spreading around other parts of China, however, including five cases in the national capital Beijing. Fifteen medical personnel are among those infected.

Abroad, Thailand has reported two cases and South Korea one, all involving Chinese travelers from Wuhan. Japan and Taiwan also confirmed one case each, both nationals who had been to Wuhan.

“Information about newly reported infections suggest there may now be sustained human-to-human transmission,” said WHO’s regional director for the western Pacific, Takeshi Kasai.

Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China claims as its own, on Monday set up an epidemic response command center. More than 1,000 beds were prepared in isolation wards in case the virus spreads further.

MARKET WOBBLE

The mounting anxiety was transmitted to regional markets.

China’s onshore yuan fell 0.6%, its biggest daily drop since Aug. 26, 2019, while airline and travel stocks fell across the region.

European shares also slipped on concerns about the impact of the outbreak, with luxury goods firms particularly hard-hit on worries about weaker demand from Chinese consumers.

Though the origin of the virus was yet to be identified, WHO said the primary source was probably animal. Chinese officials have linked the outbreak to Wuhan’s seafood market.

The virus can cause pneumonia, with symptoms including fever and difficulty in breathing. As those symptoms are similar to many other respiratory diseases, extra screening is needed.

“The outbreak of a SARS-like coronavirus in Wuhan is developing into a major potential economic risk to the Asia-Pacific region now that there is medical evidence of human-to-human transmission,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific Chief Economist for IHS Markit.

So far, the WHO has not recommended trade or travel restrictions but such measures could be discussed at Wednesday’s meeting.

China’s National Health Commission will also give an update at a press briefing at 10 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Wednesday.

RUSH FOR MASKS

Airports in the United States, Australia and across Asia have begun screening passengers from Wuhan.

In the city itself, officials have been using infrared thermometers to screen passengers at airports, railway stations and other passenger terminals since Jan. 14.

The Lunar New Year is a major holiday for Chinese, many of whom travel to join family or have a foreign holiday.

Images of long lines of people queuing to buy face masks were circulating widely on Chinese social media.

Some online vendors were limiting sales of masks and hand sanitizers as demand surged.

Shanghai city’s market regulator warned it would punish speculators hoarding masks or other products used for preventing diseases, according to the Shanghai Observer, a web publication backed by a Communist Party newspaper.

But Zhong Nanshan, head of the National Health Commission’s team investigating the outbreak, sought to ease alarm, saying in footage shown by state television there was no danger of a repeat of the SARS epidemic so long as precautions were taken.

Chinese travel booking platforms from Trip.com to Alibaba Group’s Fliggy said they would offer free cancellations on bookings made for Wuhan.

(Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Se Young Lee, Sophie Yu, Lusha Zhang, Huizhong Wu and Judy Hua in Bejing, John Geddie in Singapore; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Andrew Cawthorne)

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