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Death Toll Rises To 17 As China's Deadly Coronavirus Spreads

Chinese authorities have urged people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings, after warning that a new strain of coronavirus could spread.

The number of deaths linked to a new coronavirus in China has risen to 17 - a near doubling in the last 24 hours - according to officials in China's Hubei province.

The virus, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms, was discovered in the metropolis of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, in late December.

Chinese officials had earlier counted 470 people infected across the country, with concerns that the number could spiral in the days ahead.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to travel from major cities to family homesteads for the Lunar New Year celebration.

Citizens wear masks to defend against new viruses in Guangzhou, China. Image: Getty

Incidents of the disease have also been reported in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the US, as well as in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau.

The World Health Organisation in Geneva is expected to convene a meeting on Wednesday evening to determine whether the outbreak constitutes a health emergency of international concern.

Several countries increased border health checks to guard against the disease's spread, including Australia, the US, the UK and Russia.

North Korea has temporarily closed its border to all foreign tourists in response to the outbreak, according to a travel agency that operates tours to the country.

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The new coronavirus belongs to the same family of viruses that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a disease that killed 800 people globally in a 2002-03 pandemic that also started in China.

Scientists in China said the new coronavirus may have been transmitted during the illegal trade of wild animals.

China's Disease Control and Prevention Centre director Gao Fu said the virus is believed to have originated at a market in Wuhan, from where it mutated and became transmissible from person to person.

"From what we know, the source was the wild animals sold at the seafood market," Gao told journalists on Wednesday.

"The virus of this wild animal is gradually mutating."

The death toll has risen and there are fears it could continue to climb. Image: Getty

The SARS coronavirus is believed to have been transmitted by civet cats, a type of wild animal that is considered a delicacy in parts of China.

Authorities did not say what animal they suspected the new coronavirus came from.

Face masks were rapidly selling out in major Chinese cities on Wednesday, and authorities are asking people to avoid travelling to Wuhan - a city with an estimated population of some 11 million people - if possible.

The city on Tuesday said it had installed infrared thermometers at airports, railway and bus stations and was disinfecting public transport vehicles daily.