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Coronavirus cases rise to about 650 worldwide as infection spreads to new countries

The total number of coronavirus cases in China rose to 639 Thursday as the fast-spreading infection prompted local authorities to quarantine several major cities and cancel Lunar New Year’s events in Beijing and elsewhere.

The virus — which was first diagnosed less than a month ago — has already killed at least 18 people and infected roughly 650 people around the world, including confirmed reports in Singapore and Saudi Arabia, according to multiple reports from international and local media. Medical teams have been dispatched across the country and hospitals are asking for donations of essential items, including face masks, eye protectors, protective uniforms and sanitizer.

Local authorities in China have quarantined Wuhan and Huanggang, which have a combined population of 17 million. Including Wuhan where the virus was first identified, travel bans were in effect Thursday for at least seven cities.

China is offering to refund domestic flights and train tickets nationwide. An estimated 246,000 travelers arrived in Wuhan either via plane or train on Thursday before all transportation in and out of the city was shut down. The number of people leaving the city is currently unknown.

The U.S. State Department on Thursday reiterated its level 2 travel advisory, indicating travels should “exercise increased caution.” The department earlier on Thursday errantly raised its travel advisory and urged citizens to “reconsider travel,” but reverted that change. The agency, in a statement, said its website “briefly displayed an inaccurate version of the Advisory due to a technical error – we apologize for any confusion. Again, the Advisory level has not changed.”

U.S. health officials began screening passengers flying from China at major international airports this weekend, and confirmed the country’s first case on Tuesday. A Washington state man is quarantined with the virus in a hospital outside of Seattle after flying back from Wuhan, U.S. health authorities said.

Someone else was sent to the hospital “for further evaluation” by local and U.S. health officials after arriving at the Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday, a spokesman for the airport confirmed to CNBC on Thursday. The passenger was on an American Airlines flight from Mexico City. There was no confirmation that the passenger was infected with the virus.

British TV network BBC News reported Thursday that four people in Scotland are being tested for the virus.

The World Health Organization is reconvening an emergency meeting in Geneva on Thursday, after postponing its decision on whether to designate the new virus as a global health emergency. Health officials hesitated Wednesday to designate the virus as a global emergency, trying to contain the fast-spreading illness without unnecessarily spooking global trade. WHO physicians said they needed more data before declaring a global emergency, but the virus is now spreading through close human contact and in health-care settings, they said

The previously unknown, flu-like coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged from an animal market in central Wuhan city. A group of scientists said late Wednesday that they may have a breakthrough in discovering the original source of the virus, declaring that snakes, particularly the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra, may be responsible for the outbreak. The scientist used samples of the virus from patients and determined the genetic code.

Some major U.S. companies, including General Motors and Ford, announced that they would also temporarily restrict employee travel. MGM Resorts said it has canceled its Lunar New Year’s celebration in Macau this weekend as it works with authorities to protect guests and employees.

Here are where cases have been reported:

Mainland China 639
Taiwan 1
Macau 2
Hong Kong: 2
Vietnam: 2
Thailand: 3
Japan: 1
South Korea: 1
Singapore: 1
US: 1

CNBC’s Leslie Josephs, Eunice Yoon and Reuters contributed to this article.

This story is developing. Please check back for updates.

Correction: The U.S. State Department reiterated its China travel advisory on Thursday at level 2, indicating travels should “exercise increased caution.” An earlier version of this story, using incorrect information from the agency, misstated the travel advisory level.