China Warns Holiday Travel Surge Could Spread Deadly Coronavirus

China Warns Holiday Travel Surge Could Spread Deadly Coronavirus

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,

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.”

[Read about the first confirmed case of the Wuhan coronavirus in the United States.]

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.”

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