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Medical staff members carry a patient into the Jinyintan hospital, where patients infected by a mysterious SARS-like virus are being treated, in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on January 18, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Beijing: China’s National Health Commission said on Wednesday 440 people in 13 Chinese provinces were confirmed to be infected with a new coronavirus as of Tuesday, with nine deaths, and that there was evidence of respiratory transmission from patient to patient.

The number of cases compares with the total of over 300 reported earlier as of Tuesday. Li Bin, vice minister of the commission, also told a media briefing that live animals were not allowed to enter Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the outbreak originated.

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Fear of person-to-person transmission

In China — with hundreds of millions of Chinese packing onto public transport to make their annual pilgrimages home for the Lunar New Year — a new sense of panic set in after confirmation that the coronavirus could be transmitted person to person.

Long lines formed at pharmacies and convenience stores around the country as people rushed to buy surgical masks, with unlucky customers posting photos on social media of bare shelves.

People around the country canceled their trips home for the Spring Festival, as new year celebrations are known, the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar.

"I don't really dare to go to the airport right now, or even to the movie theater," said Xie Jing, 33, who works in advertising in Shanghai, where there have been two confirmed cases of coronavirus.

She canceled her planned trip home to Sichuan, where two cases are suspected.

"Everyone is being very careful at the moment in Shanghai. Everyone is wearing masks on the streets," Xie said.

Emergency meeting

The Geneva-based World Health Organization said it would call an emergency meeting Wednesday to decide whether to designate the outbreak as an international public health emergency.

Australia and the Philippines are the latest countries with suspected cases of the infection, and Taiwan also confirmed one person there had caught it.

The virus was first detected on Dec. 31 and was linked to a dirty food market in Wuhan, not far from one of the city's main train stations, where wild animals including wolf pups and civet cats had been on sale for consumption.

The number of people who have died of the virus rose from six to nine and the number of confirmed cases in China stood at 440 as of Wednesday morning, an increase of more than 200 from Monday, according to Li Bin, vice director of the National Health Commission.

Wuhan virus

The vast majority of cases are in Wuhan, where Mayor Zhou Xianwang said six people with the virus have died.

Wuhan's three major hospitals have 800 beds, but authorities said they would add 1,200 beds to deal with the rising number of pneumonia cases.

They also said they would foot the hospital bills for those infected.

Initially, doctors thought that the virus was not communicable between humans, but cases of infection across the country, including among people who have not been to Wuhan, proved that it can be passed on.

Some 60 people across 15 provinces are being monitored for possible infection,with cases found as far afield as Dalian in the northeast and Chongqing in the southwest, as well as in the metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Specialists are urging travelers not to move in and out of the central Chinese city.

"We hope people can avoid going to Wuhan if possible and that people in Wuhan can stay there," said Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the leader of a government team of experts responding to the outbreak. "This is not a call from the officials but a suggestion from us in the expert team," he said.

Still, he said it was "inevitable" that the virus would continue to spread as people moved around the country for the turning of the Lunar New Year on Saturday.

The Ministry of Transport estimates that 400 million people will be on the move, making a total of 3 billion trips during this period.