BEIJING — The new coronavirus continued to spread across China and nearby countries on Wednesday, with health authorities warning that it could mutate, complicating efforts to contain it in the middle of the busiest travel period on the Chinese calendar.
Nine people have now died from the virus, all of them in Hubei province, Li Bin, the vice director of National Health Commission, told reporters in Beijing. As of Wednesday afternoon local time, 443 people had been confirmed as having the virus.
But even as Li spoke on Wednesday morning, reports of more infections continues to come in: another nine in Guangdong province, which shares a border with Hong Kong, and another five in Zhejiang, the province south of Shanghai. Even Chinese state media struggled to keep an up to date tally.
“At present, during the Spring Festival travel rush, the number of people on the move has surged, which has increased the risk of an epidemic and the difficulty of preventing and controlling transmission,” Li said.
More than 400 million people will be making 3 billion trips in China during the 40 day period around the turn of the lunar new year, which begins on Saturday. It is a time notorious even in China for crowded trains and buses, conditions that are ripe for the airborne virus to spread.
“We should not take this situation lightly and should be on high alert,” Li said Wednesday in a news conference called by central government authorities to try to allay concerns after confirmation that, contrary to initial thoughts, the virus could be spread between humans.
Highlighting the difficulties in responding to the virus, it emerged that Wang Guangfa, a member of the National Health Commission’s expert group that traveled to Wuhan to investigate the outbreak, was among the infected.
Wang had said on Jan. 11 that the capacity of the virus to spread was relatively weak, and that the situation was under control, according to the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.
With medical officials warning of the possibility of transition through droplets from the mouth and nose, people across China have been racing to buy specific masks that can protect against the microbes.
Many physical and online stores had sold out on Wednesday, leading Taobao, the huge online marketplace, to ban its online vendors from raising mask prices to take advantage of the crisis.
One mask manufacturer, in Zhejiang province, said it received orders for 80 million masks in the space of a week and has had to call 100 workers back from their holidays and promise to pay them triple their usual salary. Still, the company has said it won’t be able to meet demand.
The health officials confirmed that the new virus had come from wild animals sold at a market in Wuhan, the city of 11 million people that is the capital of Hubei province and straddles the Yangtze river.
Wuhan is a major transport hub for trains, planes and ships.
Some 27 million passengers passed through Wuhan Tianhe International Airport last year. Its airport is one of those offering six-day visa free entry into China, part of an effort to encourage foreign tourists to stop over on their way to other countries. Direct flights on offer from Wuhan to international destinations include New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Rome and Moscow.
It is also one of the busiest airports for domestic aviation, sitting at the intersection of the Beijing-Guangzhou and Shanghai-Chengdu air corridors.
With an expansion completed this month, the number of flights in and out of the airport had been expected to increase from 600 to 800 a day during the Spring Festival travel rush.
At the same time, China Railway’s Wuhan branch has been expecting to see almost 25 million passengers traveling through its three main stations this Spring Festival, with a daily peak of about 920,000 rail passengers.
Reports of confirmed or suspected cases outside China’s borders also continued to rack up. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the United States have all confirmed cases. Thailand’s health minister said Wednesday that it had identified four cases of coronavirus, three Chinese and one Thai.
Meanwhile, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore and Nigeria are monitoring potentially infected patients. In the territory of Hong Kong, where the government has been trying to ban the wearing of masks amid anti-government protests, there were 117 suspected infections.
Macao, another Chinese territory near Hong Kong, also reported its first infection.
Liu Yang and Lyric Li contributed report.
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