Chinese president warns of 'accelerating spread' of coronavirus and grave public health situation

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Saturday the coronavirus was undergoing an “accelerating spread” as officials grapple to contain the illness’s outbreak. 

"Life is of paramount importance. When an epidemic breaks out, a command is issued. It is our responsibility to prevent and control it," Xi said at a meeting of the leaders of the Communist Party of China, according to state-run media outlet Xinhua News Agency.

Tens of millions of people are reportedly in quarantine or lockdown across China as the government deals with the outbreak, which coincides with celebrations of the Lunar New Year.

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More than 40 people have died and more than 1,300 people have been infected globally, according to tallies, with the majority of the cases occurring in China. 

Beyond the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia, France and the U.S. have all reported confirmed cases of the coronavirus, raising fears of an international outbreak. 

Two people in Washington state and Chicago are confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus. Officials are investigating several other patients, some of whom had contact with the two with confirmed cases. 

It is still unclear how the virus is spread between people. To prevent the further spread of the illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will screen passengers from Wuhan who are arriving at international airports in Atlanta and Chicago. Screenings began last week at international airports in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

While the virus is common in animals such as bats, cats and camels, it can spread to humans in rare instances that are known as spillover events.