Four more cases have been identified in a viral pneumonia outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that has killed two people and prompted countries as far away as the United States to take precautionary measures.
- Chinese authorities say the latest cases bring the number of people who have contracted the illness to 45
- But the London-based Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis says there were likely to be “substantially more cases”
- Heath experts say it is hard to screen people for the virus as the symptoms are “quite general”
The latest cases bring the number of people who have contracted the illness to 45, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said. Five are in serious condition, two died and 15 have been discharged. The others are in stable condition.
The cause of the pneumonia has been traced to a new type of coronavirus.
Health authorities are keen to avoid a repeat of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, another coronavirus that started in southern China in late 2002 and spread to more than two dozen countries, killing nearly 800 people.
Though experts say the new virus does not appear to be as lethal as SARS, there is little known about its origins and how easily it can spread.
At least a half-dozen countries in Asia have started screening incoming airline passengers from central China.
The list includes Thailand and Japan, which have together reported three cases of the disease in people who had come from Wuhan. It is an unusually busy travel period as people take trips to and from China around Lunar New Year, which falls on January 25 this year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also warned that a wider outbreak is possible, though it has advised against any travel restrictions for China.
The US announced it would begin screening passengers at three major airports arriving on flights from Wuhan.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it would deploy 100 people to take the temperatures and ask about symptoms of incoming passengers at the Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City’s Kennedy airports.
But Alexandra Phelan, global health legal expert at Georgetown University’s Centre for Global Health Science and Security, said such screening may be insufficient in preventing the virus from spreading as its symptoms, which include fever, cough and difficulty in breathing, are “quite general”.
“There are likely to be many individuals with matching symptoms due to an illness that is not 2019-nCoV,” Mr Phelan said, referring to the new virus.
Doctors began seeing a new type of viral pneumonia — fever, cough, difficulty breathing — in people who worked at or visited a food market in the suburbs of Wuhan late last month.
The city’s health commission confirmed a second death this week, a 69-year-old man who fell ill on December 31 and died on Wednesday.
Officials have said the pneumonia probably spread from animals to people but have not been able to rule out the possibility of human-to-human transmission, which would enable it to spread much faster.
No related cases have been found so far among 763 people who had close contact with those diagnosed with the virus in Wuhan. Of them, 665 have been released and 98 remain under medical observation, the Wuhan health authorities said.
A report published by the London Imperial College’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis said there were likely to be “substantially more cases” of the new coronavirus than currently announced by Wuhan authorities.
The agency estimates that there would be 1,723 cases showing related symptoms by January 12.