Chinese officials warned Sunday that the deadly new coronavirus is likely to spread as the U.S. prepared to evacuate diplomatic officials stationed in the city of Wuhan where it's believed to have originated.
Ma Xiaowei, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) minister, told a news conference that the incubation period for the coronavirus can range from one to 14 days and that it is infectious during this time.
This was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that claimed nearly 800 lives during the 2002-2003 epidemic that also originated in China, he said.
“At present, the rate of development of the epidemic is accelerating,” Ma added. “I am afraid that it will continue for some time, and the number of cases may increase.”
In a separate statement the NHC confirmed that 56 people had died from the virus and almost 2,000 people had been infected with it. There are more than 2,600 suspected cases, it added.
The coronavirus, which spreads through respiratory transmission, belongs to the same family as the strain that caused SARS. Not much is known about how the virus causes an infection, but it can result in symptoms, such as fever, coughing, wheezing and pneumonia.
While the virus may have evolved from wild animals to humans in the early days, Ma said it is now gradually adapting to survive in humans and entering the period of human-to-human transmission.
“From now on, the spread of the epidemic is relatively fast, which brings some challenges and pressures to prevention and control," he said. "Experts predict that the epidemic is now entering a more severe and complicated period.”
Ma added that there was no evidence to suggest the virus has mutated, but said that the possibility of the virus changing over a period of time may not be ruled out.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department announced plans Sunday to evacuate its personnel stationed in Wuhan.
The department said it will also book a limited number of private U.S. citizens onto the flight which scheduled to depart Tuesday. It said priority will be given to Americans at greater risk from coronavirus.
Other countries, including France and Australia, have also said they are also considering options to get their citizens out of Wuhan.
Japan announced plans Sunday to arrange for a charter plane for Japanese nationals in Wuhan wishing to come home. The country has now recorded its fourth confirmed case of the virus.
Meanwhile, a person in Orange County, California who had returned from a trip to Wuhan has been confirmed as the third confirmed case of the new coronavirus in the U.S. Sunday. Two other cases involved patients in Washington State and Chicago.
The disease has now spread to four continents, as Australia announced Saturday three confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Sydney. Canada has also declared its first "presumptive" confirmed case Saturday.
A sixth case of the new coronavirus was confirmed in Hong Kong Sunday after the city’s chief executive declared the highest level of emergency a day earlier.
Authorities in the region halted ticket sales for trains going to Wuhan earlier this week. They have also suspended flights from Wuhan into Hong Kong. Two of Hong Kong's major tourist attractions, the Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park theme parks, were closed Sunday in response to the outbreak.
Officials at the World Health Organization said earlier this week that it has not yet reached a level that would deem it a global public health emergency.
But the epidemic has left more than a dozen cities in China on lockdown, including Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated at a seafood market late last year, forcing millions of people to cancel their travel plans amid the traditionally busy Lunar New Year celebrations.
On Sunday, China announced a nationwide ban on wildlife trade in markets and e-commerce platforms until the epidemic is under control.
China’s President Xi Jinping said during a politburo meeting on Saturday that China was facing a "grave situation" as it scrambled to contain the outbreak.