Jan. 24 (UPI) -- Chinese health officials said Friday at least 26 people have now died from the outbreak of a coronavirus, which has led authorities to lock down a number of cities in a desperate bid to keep it from spreading.
Beijing's National Health Commission said there are more than 900 documented cases and more than 1,000 suspected cases of the virus worldwide. Most are in mainland China, with a smattering of cases in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and the United States. The virus in all confirmed cases are believed to have originated in Wuhan, China.
Officials said most of the deaths have occurred in the outbreak's epicenter of Hubei province in central China. One was recorded in Hebei province.
Chinese officials said they have tracked down 9,500 close contacts of the carriers -- of which some 8,400 were under medical observation. Hundreds of others have since been discharged.
Teams of scientists are working to find some medical means to control the virus -- and Chinese officials are rushing to build a new hospital specifically to house coronavirus patients. One official told BBC News a vaccine is being developed in labs at Johnson & Johnson, but is probably still a year away.
The Ministry of Science and Technology said Friday it's assembled a team of 14 researchers to control and prevent spread of the virus. The team's leader, scientist Zhong Nanshan, is known for his work in fighting a SARS outbreak in China nearly 20 years ago.
Efforts to control the outbreak intensified in China Friday. At least eight cities, including Wuhan, have been locked down to keep the virus from spreading -- meaning transportation into and out of the cities is restricted. Several nations, including the United States, have issued advisories against traveling to China in the interim.
Officials estimate more than 20 million people in China are affected by the coronavirus-related restrictions.
Chinese media reported health authorities are racing to set up a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan reserved for coronavirus patients, while science officials have established a team of 14 experts to help prevent and control the outbreak, including the development of a vaccine.
The start of the Chinese Lunar New Year this week, a time when many travel around the nation, has increased the risk of further spreading the virus.
The World Health Organization declined Thursday to declare a health emergency of international concern, saying the outbreak has not yet met parameters for such a step.