Hospital officials in Hong Kong raised their alert level to “serious” on Saturday as a mystery viral pneumonia outbreak in mainland China continued to spread.

The infection was first reported on December 31 in Wuhan, a central Chinese city with a population of over 11 million — leading to online speculation about a resurgence of the flu-like SARS virus that killed hundreds of people in 2002-2003.

hong kong sars flu prepare
Photo: GovHK.

The number of reported cases has now risen from 27 to 44, with 11 people listed in serious condition, according to China’s public health watchdog.

The outbreak sparked fears in Hong Kong when a woman who travelled to Wuhan during the Christmas holiday was admitted to hospital on Thursday for treatment of respiratory infections.

By mid-day Saturday, Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority had reported a total of eight cases to the city’s health department.

Three are being treated under isolation conditions in a public hospital, while the other five have been discharged.

Officials in the international financial hub also implemented enhanced monitoring and infection control in public hospitals and clinics.

In mainland China, authorities reported that the major cluster of recent infections have centered around a wet market in Wuhan where wild animals were sold.

They were still in the process of identifying the cause, but have determined that common respiratory diseases such as influenza, bird flu and adenovirus infection are not to blame.

So far, Chinese officials say there has been no human-to-human transmission, but Ho Pak-leung, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection, advised the city to brace for that possibility.

SARS commemoration
A SARS commemoration in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

“Preventive measures should be as stringent as possible,” Ho told Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK, urging the mainland government to provide real-time updates.

Additional thermal imaging systems were put in place on Friday at Hong Kong’s international airport to check the body temperature of travellers arriving from Wuhan.

In Singapore, the health ministry also announced Friday that all travellers arriving from Wuhan would be subject to temperature checks.

In 2002-2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome killed hundreds of people around the world, with most of the fatalities registered in China and Hong Kong.

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