People wearing masks head for Beijing Station in Beijing, China on Jan. 20, 2020, ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )
Chinese President Xi Jinping said it was "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 on Monday, 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 World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva announced that it will convene a meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak constitutes a health emergency of international concern.
Declaring such an emergency would amount to a call for global vigilance, cooperation and funding to stem the virus.
A high-level team of experts from China's National Health Commission were reported as saying that two cases of person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus, with symptoms including fever and problems breathing, occurred in the south-eastern province Guangdong.
Researchers had assumed that the disease jumped from animals to humans, but a recent rise in cases - now at around 220, which represents an overnight tripling in the number of known cases - had pointed to person-to-person transmission as well.
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," President Xi said, according to CCTV.
"Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people's lives and health first."
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 on 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.
© PAA 2020