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China confirms coronavirus is spreading as death toll hits nine

By Amanda Cooper

Health authority confirms new virus could mutate as US and UK airports step up health security

The new virus that has killed nine people in China is mutating and could spread further, the country said, as Hong Kong confirmed the latest case of the disease and the UK tightened security at its main airport.

Coronavirus, a respiratory virus that originated in the city of Wuhan late last year, has spread to other cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Macau, pushing the number of confirmed cases to 440.

The US, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have all confirmed cases.

With Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations starting later this week, millions of people are preparing to travel, and some of the world’s busiest hubs, including John F Kennedy airport in the US and London Heathrow, are screening passengers for the virus.

UK health secretary Grant Schapps told Sky TV that passengers arriving from the Hubei region in China, where the disease broke out, would be screened in a separate area in Heathrow.

"There have been some announcements this morning about flights that come direct from the affected region to Heathrow with some additional measures there,” Schapps said. "Obviously we want to stay ahead of the issue so we are keeping a very close eye on it."

The Chinese government is scrambling to contain the disease, which causes fever, chills and muscle pain, and said on Wednesday it was enforcing “the strictest measures” to deal with the virus.

“The source of the infection has not been located, and its means of transmission is not clear,” the health authority said on its website.

Li Bin, the deputy director of China’s National Health Commission, told journalists in Beijing the virus is mainly passed through the respiratory tract and the country was at the most critical stage of prevention and control.

“The virus may mutate, and there is a risk of further spread of the virus,” he said.

The Chinese yuan traded around one-and-a-half week lows in the offshore market, at 6.9075 yuan to the dollar, while the Shanghai stock exchange closed up 0.3 percent on the day, having fallen by as much as 1.5 per cent earlier in the session.

The Australian dollar fell to its lowest in a month, despite the government announcing additional screening for passengers on the three weekly direct flights from Wuhan to Sydney. The Australian health department said at present, the risk of contagion was low. The Australian dollar was flat on the day at $0.6845.

This strain of coronavirus belongs to the same family of viruses as the Sars virus, which broke out in 2003 and killed nearly 800 people around the world, mostly in China and Hong Kong.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has convened a meeting later on Wednesday to determine if the outbreak is a “public health emergency of international concern”.

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