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Cases of deadly coronavirus spike as officials confirm human-to-human spread

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By Eric Baculinao and Dawn Liu and Yuliya Talmazan  with NBC News World News
Image: Travelers pass through a health screening checkpoint at Wuhan Tianhe
Travelers pass through a health screening checkpoint at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on Tuesday.   -   Copyright  Emily Wang

BEIJING — The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus climbed to close to 300 in China Tuesday as health authorities in Asia and around the world stepped up screening at airports, railway stations and on highways in an effort to stem the spread of the pneumonia-like disease.On Monday, the head of a Chinese government expert team said human-to-human transmission of the virus had been confirmed.Meanwhile, the number of those killed by the virus rose to 6, with cases being reported outside of China — including in Thailand, Japan and South Korea.Officials at China's National Health Commission confirmed 291 cases of the disease — 270 of them are in the country's central Hubei province, home to the city of Wuhan, which has seen the majority of the cases. Five more were reported in the capital Beijing, 14 in Guangdong, in southeast China, and two more in Shanghai, a global financial hub.

Travelers pass through a health screening checkpoint at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on Tuesday.
Travelers pass through a health screening checkpoint at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on Tuesday.Emily Wang

Officials said they were also looking into 54 suspected cases in 14 provinces of the country.The outbreak comes ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, during which hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel.The virus belongs to the large family of coronaviruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002-2003 outbreak that also started in China.The World Health Organization (WHO), which has been monitoring the spread of the virus, will be holding an emergency committee meeting on Wednesday to discuss whether the virus constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and formulate recommendations to manage the outbreak.China's National Health Commission will also be holding a briefing on the coronavirus outbreak Wednesday.Over the weekend, three U.S. airports started screening passengers arriving from Wuhan to prevent the spread of the virus.The South China Morning Post newspaper reported Tuesday that Beijing warned officials against covering up the spread of the virus, saying anyone who withheld information would face severe punishment and be "nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity."Eric Baculinao and Dawn Liu reported from Beijing; Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.