BANGKOK: Asia stepped up its defences Tuesday against a new SARS-like virus, introducing mandatory screenings at airports of arrivals from high-risk areas of China as authorities move to head off a billowing regional health crisis.
From Bangkok to Hong Kong and Seoul to Sydney, authorities have gone onto high-alert over the new coronavirus, following China's confirmation of the first case of human-to-human transmission of the deadly illness.
Four people have died in China while scores more have been infected with the virus.
Cases have been detected in Thailand, Japan and South Korea as the World Health Organization said it would meet to discuss declaring a global public health emergency over the outbreak.
Thai authorities have introduced mandatory thermal scans of passengers arriving from high-risk areas of China at its airports in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Krabi.
Those passengers will be screened "without exemption", health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said in a statement, adding if they exhibit signs of fever they will be quarantined for 24 hours for monitoring.
Arrivals in Thailand from Wuhan
A quarter of all international flights from Wuhan — the epicentre of the deadly virus — arrive in Thailand.
Around 1,300 passengers are expected each day from Wuhan over Chinese New Year, which starts this weekend.
Thailand is desperate to avoid a damaging outbreak during peak tourist season.
Two Chinese arrivals in Thailand have been found with the new strain of the virus - one of whom has since been discharged from hospital and has returned to China.
Extreme high alert
In Hong Kong, the southern Chinese city where memories of a 2002-3 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed hundreds still haunt the city, authorities said they were on "extreme high alert".
"We are... preparing for the worst. We have not lowered our guard," Hong Kong's number two leader, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, told reporters.
Hong Kong airport already routinely screens the temperatures of all passengers arriving at the airport, one of the world's busiest.
Those arriving from Wuhan have to fill out health declarations and face fines and up to six months jail if they fail to declare symptoms.
On Monday, hospital authorities said they would monitor anyone with a fever who bad been to Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. By Monday evening, Chinese authorities confirmed human to human transmission had been
Taiwan, meanwhile, went onto its second-highest alert level for those travelling to and from Wuhan, advising visitors to avoid visiting any live poultry markets while screening has been stepped up at airports.
China's vast land borders with its neighbours have also come under scrutiny.
Vietnam's health ministry has ordered more border checks as "the risks of infection are high" given the daily cross-border flow of goods and people.
As fears over the reach of the outbreak mount, Australian health officials said they have restricted a man to his home after he returned from Wuhan showing symptoms of the virus — the country's first suspected case.
Philippines investigates suspected case of Chinese virus
Philippine health authorities are investigating the case of a five-year old Chinese boy with a travel history to Wuhan, the central city where a new coronavirus was first discovered, after he showed flu-like symptoms before arriving in the country.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque said the boy tested positive for coronavirus, but it could not be ascertained what strain until the government gets back samples it sent to Australia.
He was confined to a hospital several hours after arriving in Cebu City in the central Philippines on Jan. 12 with his mother, after he manifested a fever, throat irritation and cough, Duque told a media briefing.
Authorities in China have confirmed the virus can be spread through human contact, reporting 15 medical staff had been infected and a fourth person had died.
The Philippines health ministry also said it was monitoring three other Chinese nationals who arrived from China with flu-like symptoms, but without any history of travel to Wuhan.
Human to human transmission
On January 20, a third death and more than 100 new cases are announced in China, sparking concerns ahead of the annual Lunar New Year holiday which begins January 25 and sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel nationwide.
More than 200 cases
The virus is present in Beijing in the north, Shanghai in the east and Shenzhen in the south. More than 200 cases have been recorded.
The virus is also detected in South Korea in a Chinese person who has arrived by plane from Wuhan.
China's President Xi Jinping says that the virus must be "resolutely contained", in his first public comments on the outbreak.
Human-to-human transmission is "affirmative", a top Chinese expert on infectious diseases Zhong Nanshan tells state broadcaster CCTV.
New disease spreading in Asia revives SARS fears
After Thailand detected its second case of a mysterious SARS-linked virus this week following confirmed cases in China and Japan, here are a few key points about coronavirus:
What is the new strain of coronavirus?
The UN's health agency says that the outbreak of the disease in the Chinese city of Wuhan is a never-before-seen strain belonging to a broad family of viruses ranging from the common cold to more serious illnesses such as SARS.
According to Arnaud Fontanet, head of Paris' Institut Paster department of epidemiology, the new strain is the seventh known type of coronavirus that humans can contract.
"We think that the source may have been animals sold at market and from there it passed to the human population," he told AFP.
Why is it causing alarm?
The outbreak has caused alarm because of the link with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed 349 people in mainland China and another 299 in Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
Fontanet said the current virus strain was 80 percent genetically identical to SARS.
At least 40 cases have been reported in Wuhan this year, and the outbreak has already claimed two lives.
Time to panic?
Fontanet said that the coronavirus appears to be "weaker" than SARS in its current form, but cautioned that it could mutate into a more virulent strain.
"We don't have evidence that says this virus is going to mutate, but that's what happened with SARS," he said.
"The virus has only been circulating a short time, so it's too early to say."
As for person-to-person transmission — a key hallmark of pandemics — the Chinese government has confirmed cases late on Monday (January 20, 2020).
Investigations carried out into the 700 or so people in Wuhan. One woman claims she never went to the seafood market where the outbreak is thought to have started.
Is it spreading beyond China?
Fontanet said the fact that the virus had spread beyond China was "starting to make us fear that interhuman transmission is possible."
WHO has not recommended any specific measures for travellers or restrictions on trade with China but believes that new coronavirus cases in other countries are likely.
The best way of containing any disease outbreak is to rapidly confirm the source, according to Raina MacIntyre, from the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
"Tests are being done on animals in the Wuhan region and they should provide some insight," she said.
Experts said authorities must be vigilant and monitor travellers coming to and from Wuhan for signs of breathing problems.
Whare are the lessons learnt?
Fontanet said health workers in China had responded admirably by rapidly carrying out testing among patients and linking the cases to the market in question.
"We've learned some lessons from SARS. We're better armed and more reactive," he said.
Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in the spread and control of infectious diseases the University of Sydney, said China had "has been quick to share the genome sequencing of this novel coronavirus.
"This has enabled the identification of this new case in Japan," he said.
Fontanet said that such transparency was different to the start of the SARS epidemic, when China "hid the story for two or three months" at the start of the outbreak.