BEIJING — A little-understood coronavirus could mutate and spread further across China as hundreds of millions of people travel over the Lunar New Year holiday, one of the nation’s top health officials warned on Wednesday.
The official, Li Bin, a deputy head of China’s National Health Commission, said at a news conference in Beijing that the number of people infected by the coronavirus that causes pneumonia-like illness had risen to 440 by Tuesday night, up nearly tenfold from last week. Nine people have died.
Every year, Chinese travelers embark on the world’s biggest annual human migration for the Lunar New Year, a weeklong holiday. That begins on Friday, when the country says farewell to the Year of the Pig and welcomes the Year of the Rat. Dr. Li said the huge tide of travel during the holiday could worsen the spread of the virus and make it more difficult to contain.
Already, though, the new virus has spread from Wuhan, a city of 11 million, across many parts of China — and abroad, including to the United States — aided by China’s vast rail network and growing numbers of international travelers. The World Health Organization was expected to hold a meeting on Wednesday to discuss whether to declare the outbreak an international health emergency, which would escalate the global response.
Dr. Li endorsed the government’s advice that people should minimize travel to and from Wuhan, the city in central China that is the epicenter of the outbreak.
“The possibility exists that the virus could mutate, and there are risks that the epidemic could spread further,” Dr. Li said.
Reducing travel around Wuhan in particular, he added, would “reduce the chances of the virus spreading.”
Dr. Li and other health officials leavened their warnings with reassurances that the Chinese government was taking firm steps to staunch the spread of the virus, and that it was disclosing information as quickly as possible. Many Chinese people hold bitter memories of 2003, when SARS — a deadlier coronavirus with some similarities to the current outbreak — spread widely after officials concealed the rising number of infections.
Officials in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, initially downplayed the risks from the new virus, which may have first passed from animals to humans in a market. But as cases increased, officials acknowledged that the virus has spread between humans, raising the risks of a widening epidemic.
The dangers could increase if the virus mutates in ways that make it easier to spread.
“The relationship between viruses and people is a cat-and-mouse game,” Gao Fu, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the news conference Wednesday. “Up to this present stage, human-to-human transmission has been confirmed, and it has been disseminated in some communities.”