SARS-like virus spreads in China, reaches South Korea

BEIJING (AFP) – A new SARS-like virus has killed a third person, spread around China and reached South Korea, authorities said yesterday, fuelling fears of a major outbreak as millions begin travelling for the Lunar New Year in humanity’s biggest migration.

The new coronavirus strain, first discovered in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has caused alarm because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

Wuhan has 11 million inhabitants and serves as a major transport hub, including during the annual Lunar New Year holiday which begins later this week and sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country to visit family.

Weighing in on the matter for the first time, Chinese President Xi Jinping said yesterday that safeguarding people’s lives should be given “top priority” and that the spread of the epidemic “should be resolutely contained”, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Xi said it was necessary to “release information on the epidemic in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation,” and ensure people have a “stable and peaceful Spring Festival”, the broadcaster said.

The total number of people diagnosed with the virus rose to 217 as 136 new cases were found over the weekend in Wuhan, 15 in southern Guangdong province and five in Beijing.

A third person died in Wuhan, the local health commission said.

South Korea yesterday reported its first case – a woman who flew in from Wuhan. Thailand and Japan have previously confirmed three cases – all of whom had visited the Chinese city.

Travellers wear face masks as they walk outside of the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing. PHOTO: AP