Coronavirus appears to be capable of spreading from person to person and between cities, new findings suggest.
In two studies published in the journal Lancet, scientists also report the virus can cause symptoms similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) such as fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath.
But lead author of one of the studies Professor Bin Cao, of the China-Japan Friendship Hospital and Capital Medical University in China, said that despite some similarities with Sars, there are also key differences.
These include the absence of upper respiratory tract symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing and sore throat, and a lack of intestinal symptoms, such as diarrhoea which affected some Sars patients.
The researchers analysed the first 41 patients infected with the virus and found more than half experienced shortness of breath.
All patients admitted to hospital had pneumonia and most had a fever (98%), cough (76%) and fatigue (44%), the researchers said.
Like Sars, the majority of cases affected healthy individuals, the team added, with less than a third of cases occurring in people with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes (20%), high blood pressure (15%), and cardiovascular disease (15%).
While the original source of infection remains unknown, many of the cases have been linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China, the researchers said.
The team also conducted a genetic analysis involving a family of seven people with unexplained pneumonia.
Professor Kwok-Yung Yuen, of the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital in China who led the second study, said: “Our findings are consistent with person-to person transmission of this new coronavirus in hospital and family settings, and the reports of infected travellers in other countries.
“Because asymptomatic infection appears possible, controlling the epidemic will also rely on isolating patients, tracing and quarantining contacts as early as possible, educating the public on both food and personal hygiene, and ensuring healthcare workers comply with infection control.”
The authors stress their findings reflect only a snapshot of one family cluster, and how efficiently the virus is able to spread remains unknown.
Vigilant control measures are warranted at this early stage of the epidemic, the team added.