SARS-like virus spreads in China, fueling outbreak fears ahead of Lunar New Year holiday


A mysterious SARS-like virus has spread around China — including to Beijing — authorities said Monday, fueling fears of a major outbreak as millions begin traveling for the Lunar New Year in humanity’s biggest migration.

The new coronavirus strain, first discovered in the central city of Wuhan, has caused alarm because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

Wuhan has 11 million inhabitants and serves as a major transport hub, including during the annual Lunar New Year holiday that begins later this week and sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country to visit family.

No human-to-human transmission has been confirmed so far, but authorities have previously said the possibility “cannot be excluded.”

A third person was confirmed to have died, and in Wuhan 136 new cases were found over the weekend, the local health commission said.

Three cases have been reported overseas — two in Thailand and one in Japan.

Health authorities in Beijing’s Daxing district said two people who had traveled to Wuhan were treated for pneumonia linked to the virus and are in stable condition.

In Guangdong, a 66-year-old Shenzhen man was quarantined on January 11 after contracting a fever and showing other symptoms following a trip to visit relatives in Wuhan, the provincial health commission said in a statement. He is also in stable condition.

“Experts believe that the current epidemic situation is still preventable and controllable,” the Guangdong health commission said.

A total of 201 people have now been diagnosed with the virus in China.

A seafood market is believed to be the center of the outbreak in the city, but health officials have reported that some patients had no history of contact with the facility.

Scientists with the MRC Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London warned in a paper published Friday that the number of cases in the city was likely to be closer to 1,700, much higher than the number officially identified.

The surge in cases “is the result of increased searching and testing” for the novel coronavirus among people sick with respiratory illness, the World Health Organization said Monday.

“This is a situation where we’re going to see additional cases all around the world as folks look for it more,” Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine, told reporters Friday. “It’s highly plausible that there will be at least a case in the United States, and that’s the reason that we’re moving forward so quickly with this screening.”

The United Nations agency released guidance for diagnostic detection of the virus Friday, facilitating the rapid testing of suspected cases. That should help scientists understand whether the virus is capable of spreading from human to human, and to better gauge the magnitude of cases.

Wuhan Deputy Mayor Chen Xiexin said on state broadcaster CCTV at the weekend that infrared thermometers had been installed at airports, railway stations and coach stations across the city.

Chen said passengers with fevers were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions. Nearly 300,000 body temperature tests had been carried out, according to CCTV.

Authorities in Hong Kong have stepped up detection measures, including rigorous temperature checkpoints for inbound travelers from the Chinese mainland.

The United States said from Friday it would begin screening direct flights arriving from Wuhan at San Francisco Airport and New York’s JFK, as well as Los Angeles, where many flights connect.

Thailand said it was already screening passengers arriving in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket, and would soon introduce similar controls in the beach resort of Krabi.

In Wuhan, 170 people are still being treated at a hospital, including nine in critical condition, the city health commission said. The new patients are between 25 and 89 years old and their symptoms included fever, coughing and chest pain.

Guangdong’s health authority said it was taking measures including intensifying its triage of fever at clinics and banning illegal wildlife sales.



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