BEIJING — The head of a Chinese government expert team said Monday that human-to-human transmission has been confirmed in an outbreak of a new coronavirus.
Team leader Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert, said two people in Guangdong province in southern China caught the disease from family members, state media said.
The National Health Commission task force also found that some medical workers have tested positive for the virus, the English-language China Daily newspaper said.
Human-to-human transmission could make the virus spread more quickly and widely. The outbreak is believed to have started from people who picked it up at a fresh food market in the city of Wuhan in central China.
Zhong said the two people in Guangdong had not been to Wuhan but family members had returned from the city, the China Daily said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday that it's "extremely crucial" to take every possible measure to combat a new coronavirus that has infected 217 people in the country.
His remarks, cited by state broadcaster CCTV, came the same day that the country reported a sharp rise in the number of people infected by the novel form of viral pneumonia, including the first cases in the capital.
The outbreak comes as the country enters its busiest travel period, when millions board trains and planes for the Lunar New Year holidays.
"The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously," Xi said, according to CCTV. "Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people's lives and health first."
They should "ensure that the masses have a quiet, peaceful and joyous Spring Festival," he added.
Health authorities in the central city of Wuhan, where the viral pneumonia appears to have originated, said an additional 136 cases have been confirmed in the city, which now has a total of 198 infected patients. As of the weekend, a third patient had died.
Five individuals in Beijing and 14 in southern China's Guangdong province have also been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, state broadcaster CCTV reported Monday evening. A total of seven suspected cases have been found in other parts of the country, including in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the southwest and in Shanghai.
The outbreak has put other countries on alert as millions of Chinese travel for Lunar New Year. Authorities in Thailand and in Japan have already identified at least three cases, all involving recent travel from China.
South Korea reported its first case Monday, when a 35-year-old Chinese woman from Wuhan tested positive for the new coronavirus one day after arriving at Seoul's Incheon airport. The woman has been isolated at a state-run hospital in Incheon city, just west of Seoul, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.
At least a half-dozen countries in Asia and three U.S. airports have started screening incoming airline passengers from central China.