SARS was a coronavirus that originated in China and killed almost 800 people worldwide in 2002 and 2003.
“According to recent clinical information, the ability to spread the virus seems to be strengthening a bit,” Ma told a news conference on the second day of the Lunar New Year holiday, adding that knowledge of the virus was limited.
Containment efforts intensified, which have so far included transportation and travel restrictions and the cancellation of major events, Ma said.
The virus, which is believed to have originated at the end of last year in a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that illegally sold wildlife, has spread to cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Hong Kong has six confirmed cases.
President Xi Jinping said during a politburo meeting on Saturday that China faces a “serious situation.”
On Sunday, China announced a temporary nationwide ban on the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants and e-commerce platforms. Wild and often looted animals in Chinese markets are accused as virus incubators that evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
Snakes, peacocks, crocodiles and other species can also be found for sale through Taobao, an e-commerce website managed by Alibaba.
The Society for the Conservation of Wildlife, based in New York, asked China to make the ban permanent.
The US Department of State said it will relocate the staff of its Wuhan consulate in the United States and offer a limited number of seats to private US citizens on a January 28 flight to San Francisco.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Sunday that his government was working with the Chinese authorities to organize a charter flight for any Japanese citizen wishing to return from Wuhan.
This week, the World Health Organization did not call the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can continue to contain the epidemic.
On Sunday, China confirmed in 1975 cases of patients infected with the new coronavirus as of January 25, while the number of deaths from the virus increased to 56, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
No fatalities have been reported outside of China.
The outbreak has caused the movements within China to stop, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, in a virtual block, with transport links almost cut, except for emergency vehicles.
Beijing health authorities urged people not to shake hands, but to say hello with a traditional cupped hand gesture. The council was sent in a text message that was sent to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.
Beijing also postponed the reopening of the city’s schools and universities after the Lunar New Year holiday, state radio reported. Hong Kong had already delayed the reopening of schools until February 17.
Health officials in Orange County, California, reported that a third case of the virus had been registered in the United States, in a Wuhan traveler, who was isolated and in good condition.
On Saturday, Canada declared a first case “alleged” confirmed in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. Australia confirmed its first four cases.
China has called for transparency in crisis management, after a cover-up of the spread of the deadly SARS virus eroded public trust, but Wuhan authorities have been criticized for its handling of the current outbreak.
“All the people in my city suspect the real number of infected patients given by the authorities,” said Violet Li, who lives in the Wuhan district, where the seafood market is located.
“I go out with a mask twice a day to walk the dog, that is the only outdoor activity,” he told Reuters by text message.
The outbreak has eclipsed the beginning of the Lunar New Year, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad to be with families, with canceled public events and many closed tourist sites.
Total passenger travel decreased by almost 29 percent on Saturday, the first day of the Lunar New Year, compared to the previous year, and air passengers decreased by almost 42 percent, an official with the transport ministry said.
Many cinemas in China are also closed with major premieres of postponed films.
Cruise operators, including Royal Caribbean Cruises, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises and Astro Ocean Cruises, said they canceled 12 combined cruises that had been scheduled to board from Chinese ports before February 2.
Hong Kong Disneyland and the city’s Ocean Park closed on Sunday. Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily during the Lunar New Year holidays, has already closed.
Airports around the world have intensified China’s passenger control, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of these efforts.