BEIJING -- China will start nationwide screening to tackle the growing outbreak of a new respiratory virus, with hundreds of millions set to travel during the looming Lunar New Year holiday.
Officials are stepping up the monitoring of transportation links in China as the death toll increased to nine from six previously, the National Health Commission said in a briefing in Beijing Wednesday. There have been 440 confirmed cases across 13 provinces as of Tuesday, and 1,394 patients are under medical observation, the commission said.
Health officials around the world are racing to control the SARS-like virus that emerged in Wuhan, a city in central China, last month. Confirmed cases have stretched to five additional countries, including the first diagnosis in the U.S. -- a resident of Snohomish, Washington state. Macau on Wednesday also reported its first case.
While China said it's reacting at the highest levels to the outbreak and pledged daily updates and full information-sharing, officials acknowledged that they're still grappling to understand the pathogen, which has infected multiple medical workers despite heavy protective gear.
"We are still on a learning curve," said Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "The disease will continue to develop." It has already changed from the early stages of detection, he said in the briefing.
The World Health Organization will decide Wednesday whether to declare the virus an international public health emergency, a designation used for complex epidemics that can cross borders.
At Wednesday's briefing, China said it had seen no evidence yet of "super spreaders," infected people who pass on the disease rapidly to many other people, but could not rule out that some would emerge. Super spreaders played a key role in the SARS pandemic 17 years ago, which killed almost 800 people and hurt economies across the region.
As they did during the SARS and Ebola outbreaks, health officials and scientists globally are tracking patients and testing samples of saliva and other fluids to determine the exact cause and severity of their ailments. They're identifying and monitoring people with whom the patients were in contact to see if the virus is spreading easily from person to person. And they are placing restrictions on travel to try to limit the exposure to scores of new people.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its inspection of airline passengers who had spent time in China to airports in Atlanta and Chicago on Tuesday, building on the 1,200 people who had been screened in California and New York over the weekend. No new cases were uncovered.
"This is an evolving situation," said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "We do expect additional cases in the United States and globally."
Chinese officials on Wednesday said that Wuhan, a city of 11 million people at the center of the outbreak, has been placed under heavy supervision. Chinese citizens from elsewhere should not go to the city unless necessary, and public gatherings through the holiday period have been canceled, while tour groups have been banned from leaving.
Officials also urged Chinese citizens to open windows to ventilate their homes, wash their hands regularly and wear protective masks.
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