China on Monday confirmed that the novel coronavirus, which has killed three people so far and spread to three countries, is contagious and can spread from one human to another, AFP reported. At least 218 people have been diagnosed with the virus in Beijing itself, and over the weekend 12 cases were reported in the southern Guangdong province and and 136 cases were discovered in Wuhan – ground zero – state authorities said.

South Korea on Monday reported its first confirmed case of the coronavirus – a 35-year-old Chinese woman who travelled from Wuhan. Thailand and Japan have also confirmed three cases, with all the patients reported to have visited the Chinese city. Wuhan is a university town, and more than 500 Indians study in medical universities in and around the city.

The coronavirus is part of same family as the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome. Symptoms range from fever and coughing to kidney failure, and in some cases lead to death.

Chinese scientist Zhong Nanshan, who had helped uncover the scale of the SARS outbreak in 2002-’03 that killed 774 people, said the new virus was contagious. “Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission,” he said in an interview to state-owned CCTV, AFP reported.

Zhong, who works at the country’s National Health Commission, said human-to-human transmission was behind at least one confirmed case in Wuhan, and the infections in two families in Guangdong province, reported South China Morning Post. The two patients in Guangdong were infected by family members who had visited Wuhan. He added that 14 medical personnel had also been infected.

“The key to controlling the spread of the disease now is about preventing the emergence of a super-spreader [of the virus],” Zhong said, referring to infected patients who spread the virus, especially among medical workers.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the virus must be contained. He added that it was necessary to “release information on the epidemic in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation”.

The outbreak has cast a shadow over Lunar New Year celebrations. Hundreds of millions of people in China are expected to travel over the course of the new year period, both within the country and overseas.

The MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London has estimated that the number of cases in Wuhan city is likely to be closer to 1,700, way more than the official numbers. Chinese health authorities have not commented on the report.

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