Human-to-human spread of new virus worrying: Health experts

BEIJING (AP) — World health officials expressed “great concern” that a dangerous new virus is starting to spread between people outside of China, a troubling development as China and the world frantically work to contain the outbreak. For a second day, the number of infections grew dramatically.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak. On Wednesday, the number of cases jumped to 5,974, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with SARS.

The death toll, which rose to 170 on Wednesday, is still less than half the number who died in China from SARS. Scientists said there are many questions to be answered about the new virus, including just how easily it spreads and how severe it is.

In a report, Chinese researchers suggested that person-to-person spread among close contacts occurred as early as mid-December. Based on the first 425 confirmed cases, the researchers estimate that each infection led to 2.2 others on average. That is a bit more than ordinary flu but far less than some other respiratory diseases such as whooping cough and tuberculosis. The rate for SARS, a cousin to this new virus, was estimated to be three.

“Considerable efforts” will be needed to control the spread if this ratio holds up elsewhere, researchers wrote in the report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Chinese paramilitary police wear face masks as they stand guard at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing. PHOTOS: AP
A girl wears a face mask as she plays on a swing near the Yingwuzhou Yangtze River Bridge in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province

More than half of the cases in which symptoms began before January 1 were tied to a seafood market, but only eight per cent of cases after that have been, researchers found. They reported the average incubation period was five days.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergencies chief said the few cases of human-to-human spread of the virus outside China — in Japan, Germany, Canada and Vietnam — were of “great concern” and were part of the reason the United Nations (UN) health agency’s director-general was reconvening a committee of experts yesterday to assess whether the outbreak should be declared a global emergency.

Dr Michael Ryan spoke at a news conference in Geneva after returning from a trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior government leaders. He said China was taking “extraordinary measures in the face of an extraordinary challenge” posed by the outbreak.

To date, about 99 per cent of the nearly 6,000 cases are in China. Ryan estimated the death rate of the new virus at two per cent, but said the figure was very preliminary. With fluctuating numbers of cases and deaths, scientists are only able to produce a rough estimate of the fatality rate and it is likely many milder cases of the virus are being missed.

In comparison, the SARS virus killed about 10 per cent of people who caught it. The new virus is from the coronavirus family, which includes those that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS.

Ryan noted there were several aspects of the new virus outbreak that are extremely worrying, citing the recent rapid spike in cases in China. He said that while scientists believe the outbreak was sparked by an animal virus, it’s unclear if there are other factors driving the epidemic.

Meanwhile, countries began evacuating their citizens from the Chinese city hardest-hit by the virus.

Chartered planes carrying about 200 evacuees each arrived in Japan and the United States (US) as other countries planned similar evacuations from the city of Wuhan, which authorities have shut down to try to contain the virus.

The first cases in the Middle East were confirmed on Wednesday, a family of four from Wuhan that was visiting the United Arab Emirates.

Airlines around the world announced they were cutting flights to China, and Hong Kong was suspending rail travel to and from the mainland at midnight. The number of cases in China rose to 1,459 from the previous day, a smaller increase than the 1,771 new cases reported on Tuesday.

Australia, Finland and Singapore were among those reporting new cases, as the number outside China topped 70. The vast majority are people who came from Wuhan.

Australia, New Zealand and Britain were among the latest countries to announce they are planning evacuations.

In Hubei province, 17 cities including Wuhan have been locked down, trapping more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

Although the Chinese health minister and others have suggested that the virus is spreading before people get symptoms, data to confirm that has not yet been shared widely beyond China.