China's leader has called the accelerating spread of a new virus a grave situation, as cities from the outbreak's epicenter in central China to Hong Kong scramble to contain an illness that has infected more than 1200 people and killed 41.

President Xi Jinping's remarks, reported by state broadcaster CCTV, came at a meeting of Communist Party leaders convened on Lunar New Year — the country's biggest holiday whose celebrations have been muted — and underlined the government's urgent, expanding efforts to control the outbreak.

Travel agencies have been told to halt all group tours, the state-owned English-language China Daily newspaper reported, citing the China Association of Travel Services.

Shoppers wearing face masks pay for their groceries at a supermarket in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province yesterday. Wuhan, already on lockdown, banned most vehicle use in the CBD. Photo / AP
Shoppers wearing face masks pay for their groceries at a supermarket in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province yesterday. Wuhan, already on lockdown, banned most vehicle use in the CBD. Photo / AP

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Millions of people traveling during the holiday have fuelled the spread of the outbreak nationwide and overseas after it began in the city of Wuhan in central China. The vast majority of the infections and all the deaths have been in mainland China, but fresh cases are popping up.

Australia and Malaysia reported their first cases yesterday, and Japan, its third. France confirmed three cases Friday, the first in Europe, and the US identified its second, a woman in Chicago who had returned from China.

In the heart of the outbreak, Wuhan, whose 11 million residents are already on lockdown, banned most vehicle use, including private cars, in downtown areas starting Sunday, state media reported. Only authorized vehicles carrying supplies and for other needs would be permitted, the reports said.

The city will assign 6000 taxis to different neighbourhoods, under the management of resident committees, to help people get around if they need to, China Daily said.

In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam said her government will raise its response level to emergency, the highest one, and close primary and secondary schools for two more weeks on top of next week's Lunar New Year holiday. They will reopen February 17.

Lam said direct flights and trains from Wuhan would be blocked.

A man wearing a face mask walks through a neighbourhood in Wuhan. The city is currently in lockdown. Photo / AP
A man wearing a face mask walks through a neighbourhood in Wuhan. The city is currently in lockdown. Photo / AP

In a sign of the growing strain on Wuhan's health care system, the official Xinhua news agency reported that the city planned to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1000 beds. The city previously announced construction of a hospital of the same size that was expected to be completed February 3.

The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.

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China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan on Wednesday, as well as public transportation within the city, and has steadily expanded a lockdown to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million — greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.

China's most festive holiday, Lunar New Year, unfolded Saturday in the shadow of the worrying new virus. Authorities cancelled a host of Lunar New Year events, and closed major tourist destinations and movie theatres.

The Chinese military dispatched medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks including SARS and Ebola to Wuhan. Here a military medic prepares to leave for Wuhan from Xi'an. Photo / AP
The Chinese military dispatched medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks including SARS and Ebola to Wuhan. Here a military medic prepares to leave for Wuhan from Xi'an. Photo / AP

Temples locked their doors, Beijing's Forbidden City and Shanghai Disneyland closed, and people canceled restaurant reservations ahead of the holiday, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.

"We originally planned to go back to my wife's hometown and bought train tickets to depart this afternoon," said Li Mengbin, who was on a stroll by the moat of the closed Forbidden City. "We ended up cancelling. But I'm still happy to celebrate the new year in Beijing, which I hadn't for several years."

Temples and parks were decorated with red streamers, paper lanterns and booths, but some places started dismantling the decor after the cancellations.

People in China wore masks to restaurants and grocery stores, where workers dispensed hand sanitizer to customers. Some parts of the country had checkpoints for temperature readings and made masks mandatory.

A woman wears a mask as an employee works to prevent a new coronavirus at Suseo Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday. Photo / AP
A woman wears a mask as an employee works to prevent a new coronavirus at Suseo Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday. Photo / AP

The National Health Commission reported a jump in the number of infected people to 1,287. The latest tally, from 29 provinces and cities across China, included 237 patients in serious condition.

Of the 41 deaths, 39 have been in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital city, and one each in Hebei and Heilongjiang provinces. Most of the deaths have been older patients, though a 36-year-old man in Hubei died this week.

Elsewhere, the Australian state of Victoria announced its first case Saturday, a man in his 50s who returned from China last week. The state of New South Wales confirmed three more cases later in the day.

Malaysia said three people tested positive Friday, all relatives of a father and son from Wuhan who had been diagnosed with the virus earlier in neighboring Singapore. It said a fourth case was a traveler from Wuhan who tested positive Saturday and was unrelated to the other cases.

A health official scans the body temperature of a passenger as she arrives at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia on Wednesday. Photo / AP
A health official scans the body temperature of a passenger as she arrives at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia on Wednesday. Photo / AP

Japan confirmed a third case, a Chinese tourist in her 30s who had arrived from Wuhan on January 18.

The National Health Commission said it is bringing in medical teams to help handle the outbreak, a day after videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations and complaints that family members had been turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.

The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks, including SARS and Ebola, who arrived in Wuhan late Friday to help treat many patients hospitalized with viral pneumonia, Xinhua reported.

Xinhua also said medical supplies are being rushed to the city, including 14,000 protective suits, 110,000 pairs of gloves and masks and goggles.

The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse but could reflect better monitoring and reporting of the virus.

It is not clear how lethal the new coronavirus is or even whether it is as dangerous as the ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the US alone.

- AP