China has insisted that the outbreak of a Sars-like virus which risks spreading across the country during Lunar New Year celebrations is "controllable", as 17 fresh cases were reported in the city of Wuhan.
In its first statement since the virus was detected, China's National Health Commission said the disease's source was unknown but vowed to "step up monitoring" of any mutations during Chinese New Year period. Millions of Chinese will be heading home to their families for the holiday, which is also known as the Spring Festival, over the coming days.
The disease, also known as the coronavirus, is alarming because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong from 2002-2003.
Of the 17 new cases in the central city of Wuhan, which is believed to be the epicentre of the outbreak, three were described as "severe." The virus, which has now affected a total of 62 people in Wuhan, has also spread overseas, with two cases reported in Thailand and one in Japan.
Two people have died so far, including a 69-year-old man who succumbed to the disease after it caused pulmonary tuberculosis and damaged his organ functions. Chinese authorities said they had begun "optimised" testing of cases across the city to identify those infected, and said they would begin "detection work ... towards suspected cases in the city" as a next step, as well as carrying out "sampling tests".
Scientists from the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London have warned that the number of cases in Wuhan is likely to be closer to 1,700, much higher than the number officially identified. China is yet to confirm whether the virus can be spread from one person to another, but Wuhan's health commission has previously said the possibility "cannot be excluded".
China's centre for disease control sought to quash speculation about the coronavirus at the weekend, publishing a flyer that dismissed "five big rumours". One of them included claims about the coronavirus spreading, which China's disease control authority dismissed by saying all cases were being treated in Wuhan.
Although there has been no official announcement of screening measures on the mainland, Chen Xiexin, Wuhan deputy mayor, said infrared thermometers had been installed at airports, railway stations and coach stations across the city. Mr Chen said passengers with fevers were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions. Nearly 300,000 body temperature tests had been carried out, according to state broadcasters.
Authorities in Hong Kong have also stepped up detection measures, including temperature checkpoints for travellers arriving from the Chinese mainland. The United States has said it will begin screening direct flights arriving from Wuhan at San Francisco airport and New York's JFK, as well as Los Angeles, where many flights connect.