Australian scientists say they have developed a lab-grown version of the novel coronavirus, the first to be recreated outside of China, in a breakthrough that could help combat the global spread of the illness.
The death toll from the outbreak in China rose to 131 as health authorities at the epicentre of the epidemic reported another 840 confirmed cases, bringing the total in the country to at least at least 5355.
The virus emerged late last year in Wuhan, Hubei's capital and a major transportation hub, and much of the province has been under virtual lockdown as China seeks to contain the virus from spreading further.
The flu-like virus has spread overseas to more than a dozen countries. None of the confirmed deaths to date has been outside China. However, confirmations of person-to-person transmission in Germany, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan - as opposed to a traveller from China - has heightened concern.
The researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne said they would share the sample, which was grown from an infected patient, with the World Health Organisation and laboratories around the world.
A laboratory in China had successfully grown the virus but had released only the genome sequence, not the sample itself, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
"Having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities," the Doherty Institute's virus indentification laboratory head, Julian Druce, said in a statement.
"The virus will be used as positive control material for the Australian network of public health laboratories, and also shipped to expert laboratories working closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Europe."
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Known as "2019-nCoV", the newly identified coronavirus can cause pneumonia and, like other respiratory infections, it spreads between people in droplets from coughs and sneezes. It has an incubation period of up to 14 days.
The Australia-grown virus sample would be used to generate an antibody test, which would allow detection of the virus in patients who had not shown symptoms, as well as contributing to the creation of a vaccine, the institute said.
The virus was grown from a patient who had arrived at the institute on 24 January, it added.
The Peter Doherty Institute is a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Virus fears prompt travel restrictions
Meanwhile, fears of the spreading virus led airlines to reduce flights to China and global companies to restrict employee travel to the country.
CNBC reported that the White House had told US airlines it may suspend all China-US flights due to the outbreak.
The United States said it was expanding screening of arrivals from China from five to 20 airports and would consider imposing further travel curbs.
"All options for dealing with infectious disease spread have to be on the table, including travel restrictions," said US Health Secretary Alex Azar.
From France to Japan, governments were organising evacuations, while Hong Kong - scene of anti-China unrest for months - planned to suspend rail and ferry links with the mainland.
United Airlines said it was suspending some flights between the United States and China for a week from 1 February due to a "significant decline in demand."
The US Embassy in Beijing said a chartered plane would pick up its consular staff on Wednesday.
The European Commission said it would help fund two aircraft to fly EU citizens home, with 250 French nationals leaving on the first flight.