China believes new virus behind mystery pneumonia outbreak

BEIJING (AFP) – China believes a mysterious pneumonia outbreak that struck 59 people is caused by a new strain of virus from the same family as Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people more than a decade ago.

Lead scientist Xu Jianguo told the official Xinhua news agency that experts had “preliminarily determined” a new type of coronavirus was behind the outbreak, first confirmed on December 31 in Wuhan, a central Chinese city with a population of over 11 million.

It initially sparked fears of a resurgence of highly contagious SARS, and prompted authorities in Hong Kong – badly hit by SARS in 2002-2003 – to take precautions, including stepping up the disinfection of trains and aeroplanes, and checks of passengers.

China has since ruled out a fresh outbreak of SARS, which killed 349 people in mainland China and another 299 in Hong Kong.

“A total of 15 positive results of the new type of coronavirus had been detected” in the lab, through tests on infected blood samples and throat swabs, Xu said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the preliminary discovery of a new coronavirus in a statement.

“Further investigations are also required to determine the source, modes of transmission, extent of infection and countermeasures implemented,” said WHO Representative to China Gauden Galea.

Wuhan’s health commission said last Sunday seven of the 59 patients were seriously ill, but none had died. All received treatment in quarantine.

Eight patients have recovered and were discharged from hospital on Wednesday, according to Xinhua. The commission said the infection broke out between December 12 and 29, with some of the patients employed at a city seafood market since closed for disinfection.

No obvious evidence of human-to-human transmission has been reported so far.

Footage from January 1 by state broadcaster CCTV showed an official notice at the market saying it had been closed in light of the “current pneumonia situation in our city”, without providing a date for reopening.

The outbreak comes just a few weeks before China’s busiest annual travel period, when millions of people take buses, trains and planes for Lunar New Year.

A Chinese transport ministry official said at a briefing that arrangements were made for “disinfection, monitoring and prevention” focussing on areas with large numbers of passengers, including stations and cargo hubs.