A traveler wears a face mask as he walks outside of the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing on Monday. China reported a sharp rise in the number of people infected with a new coronavirus, including the first cases in the capital. The outbreak coincides with the country’s busiest travel period, as millions board trains and planes for the Lunar New Year holidays. Image Credit: AP

Beijing: A new SARS-like virus has killed a third person, spread around China and reached a fourth Asian country, authorities said Monday, fuelling fears of a major outbreak as millions begin travelling for the Lunar New Year in humanity’s biggest migration.

The new coronavirus strain, first discovered in the central Chinese 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 2002-03. Wuhan has 11 million inhabitants and serves as a major transport hub, including during the annual Lunar New Year holiday, which begins later this week and sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country to visit family.

What’s the latest on the situation?

The total number of people diagnosed with the virus rose to 217 as 136 new cases were found over the weekend in Wuhan, 15 in southern Guangdong province and five in Beijing, according to CCTV. A third person died in Wuhan, the local health commission said.

Which countries have been affected so far?

South Korea on Monday reported its first case — a 35-year-old woman who flew in from Wuhan. Thailand and Japan have previously confirmed a total of three cases — all of whom had visited the Chinese city. No human-to-human transmission has been confirmed so far, but authorities have not ruled out the possibility. There are also seven suspected cases in Shanghai and four provinces and regions in the east, south and southwest of the country.

A woman wearing a mask walks past a quarantine notice about the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China at an arrival hall of Haneda airport in Tokyo on Monday. Image Credit: Reuters

OK, it’s a new virus. How bad is it?

Public health officials worry whenever a new virus arrives on scene because there are no treatments for it and they don’t know how people will react to the illness. Plus, no one has any immunity to a new virus to protect them. China’s 2003 outbreak of SARS was believed to have originated through animal-to-human transmission in a similar marketplace. That outbreak ultimately killed more than 800 worldwide. “Those were quite complicated, difficult outbreaks with many people getting ill and deaths,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Understanding that this pathogen looks at least from a genetic perspective like those pathogens makes us especially worried.”

Can the outbreak be contained?

“Experts believe that the current epidemic situation can still be controlled,” China’s National Health Commission said Sunday.

But the commission acknowledged that the source of the coronavirus and its mode of transmission have yet to be known.

How did it start?

A seafood market is believed to be the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan, but health officials have reported that some patients had no history of contact with the facility. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Twitter Monday that “an animal source seems the most likely primary source” with “some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts”. It said the new cases in China were the result of “increased searching and testing for (the virus) among people sick with respiratory illness”.

What’s the estimate for number of people affected?

Scientists with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London warned in a paper that the number of cases in the city was likely to be closer to 1,700, much higher than the figure officially identified. Wuhan authorities said they have installed infrared thermometers at airports, railway stations and coach stations across the city. Passengers with fevers were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions. State TV footage aired Monday showed medical staff working inside an isolation ward at a Wuhan hospital in full-body suits.

Who is being screened for the virus and where?

In Hong Kong, health officials announced they were expanding their enhanced checks on arrivals to include anyone coming in from Hubei province in China, not just Wuhan. Airport authorities in Japan, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea have stepped up screening of passengers from Wuhan. Passengers are also being screened at three airports in the United States — New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles — that receive direct flights from Wuhan, officials said. Arriving passengers will answer questions about any respiratory symptoms and will also have their temperature taken. Patients with worrisome symptoms will be transported to a nearby location for further testing and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to make an immediate connecting flight if they have one.

I’m not flying to or from China. Do I need to be worried?

Not at the moment. The risk of the virus circulating in other countries is considered low. “For families sitting around the dinner table tonight, this is not something that they generally need to worry about,” Messonnier said. However, countries such as Thailand, Japan and South Korea – where the virus has spread – could announce screenings at their airports.

What are the possible countermeasures to prevent this?

There is no vaccine for the new virus. Symptoms include fever, difficulty in breathing as well as pneumonic infiltrates in the lungs. Chinese authorities have stepped up monitoring and disinfection efforts ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, when many of the country’s 1.4 billion people will travel domestically and overseas. The World Health Organisation sent directives to hospitals around the world on infection prevention and control.

Chinese travellers unfazed as virus spreads

Beijing: An outbreak of a mysterious virus has not deterred millions of people in China from packing into crowded trains as they head home for the Lunar New Year — but some are donning masks as a precaution.

The world’s biggest annual travel rush comes as a SARS-like coronavirus has spread from the central city of Wuhan to Beijing, southern Guangdong province and three Asian countries, with more than 200 people stricken including three fatalities.

A security officer wears a face mask as he patrols outside of the Beijing Railway Station. Image Credit: AP

Going back to the countryside or other parts of the country to gather with family is an annual ritual that is impossible to miss — China will come to a grinding halt from Friday until Thursday next week as it celebrates the incoming Year of the Rat. More than 100 million train trips have already been taken since the mass migration began about 10 days ago, the national railway operator said.

Lines formed on Monday at ticket booths outside Beijing Railway Station, where commuters — young and old — gathered with their luggage and souvenirs.

Li Yang, 28, an account manager from northern Inner Mongolia region, said it had been five to six years since she returned to her hometown from Beijing. “It’s hard to guard against such viruses,” she said. “Watching the news, I do feel a little worried. But I haven’t taken precautionary measures beyond wearing regular masks,” she added. “Even if I remained in Beijing, I would have to visit public spaces.”

A worker in the finance sector surnamed Guo added that she and her friends had been reminding each other to wear masks as a precaution. “We’re not sure how else we can protect ourselves, but I am generally vigilant,” said the 26-year-old. “What else can we do? We still have to go home over the Spring Festival.”


Xi: China will deal with outbreak resolutely

Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday that it’s “extremely crucial” to take every possible measure to combat a new coronavirus that has infected more than 200 people in the country. His remarks came the same day that the country reported a sharp rise in the number of people infected by the novel form of viral pneumonia, including the first cases in the capital. “The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” Xi said, according to CCTV. “Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first.” Health authorities in the central city of Wuhan, where the viral pneumonia appears to have originated, said an additional 136 cases have been confirmed in the city, which now has a total of 198 infected patients. As of the weekend, a third patient had died, bringing the death toll to three.

US: Mystery illness can spread from person to person

A pneumonia outbreak in central China widened after authorities in Wuhan began screening for the new SARS-like virus. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said there are signs of limited human-to-human spread. The CDC began screening passengers arriving from Wuhan at three US airports late Friday. It’s a precaution against what Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, said was both a “low” risk to the general public and “serious” given its unpredictable and fluid nature. “While most of these infections seem to be happening from animals to people, there is some indication that limited person-to-person spread is happening,” she said. The novel coronavirus has triggered alarm because of similarities with the one that sparked Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, 17 years ago. Unlike SARS, which killed almost 800 people, the 2019-nCov isn’t known to have spread to health workers.

Indian woman first foreigner to contract virus

A 45-year-old Indian woman has become the first foreigner in China to have contracted the SARS-like corona virus. Officials in Beijing said the patient was Preeti Maheshwari, a school teacher at an international school. She is undergoing treatment for the new strain of pneumonia outbreak and has been on a ventilator in the intensive care unit. Maheshwari was admitted to a local hospital after she seriously fell ill last Friday. Her husband, a businessman from Delhi, is allowed to visit her daily. Following a second death due to the outbreak, India issued an advisory to its nationals travelling to China. More than 500 Indian medical students are studying in Wuhan.

— Compiled from agencies