Coronavirus – How Much of a Threat During Chinese New Year?

Peter Russell

January 20, 2020

Editor's Note, 22nd January 2020: There's an update to this story here.

Health officials said there were no plans to introduce screening for passengers at UK airports, despite reports of an increase in cases of a strain of coronavirus in China, and three reported deaths.

Media reports today said that the number of people infected with a new virus in China tripled over the weekend, with the outbreak spreading from Wuhan, the most populous city in central China, to other major cities.

Public Health England (PHE) said it was monitoring the situation and had drawn up advice to travellers ahead of Chinese New Year celebrations beginning on the 25th January.

Experts warned that the outbreak of the Sars-like virus showed signs of person-to-person transmission, and that it was likely to be on a larger scale than officially admitted.

However, there was praise for the Chinese authorities for being more open about the extent of the virus spread than in previous health emergencies.

Virus Linked to Animal Markets and Seafood

Wuhan reported 136 new cases of the respiratory illness. The capital Beijing reported 5 cases, while Shenzhen and Shanghai confirmed one each.

The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said the majority of cases appeared to be connected to a seafood and animal market in the city.

Health officials in the US have taken a robust attitude to the threat of transmission with the country's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention starting a screening programme at three airports to detect ill travellers entering the country on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan.

The 'enhanced' symptom-based health screening of passengers will be conducted at San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles airports, which receive most of the passengers from Wuhan.

Advice in the UK was that travellers should take 'simple' precautions such as practising good hand and personal hygiene and minimising contact with birds and animals in markets in Wuhan.

Hand Hygiene Advised

Dr Nick Phin, national infection service deputy director at PHE, said in a statement: "Based on the available evidence, the risk to travellers to Wuhan from this disease is low and we are not advising them to change their plans.

"In order to minimise the risk of transmission, people travelling to the area should maintain good hand and personal hygiene. Travellers should seek medical attention if they develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of visiting Wuhan, informing their health service prior to their attendance about their recent travel to the city.

"The risk to the UK population is very low. The UK has robust arrangements to manage emerging diseases and we can draw on our experience of developing pioneering diagnostic tests in humans for the coronaviruses - SARS and MERS."

Advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC)’s website Travel Health Pro emphasised maintaining hand and personal hygiene, and avoiding animals in markets and uncooked meat.

It said travellers should seek medical attention in the event of respiratory symptoms within 14 days of visiting Wuhan.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, commented on the Science Media Centre: "Uncertainty and gaps remain, but it's clear that there is some level of person-to-person transmission.

"We are starting to hear of more cases in China and other countries and it is likely, as this modelling shows, that there will be many more cases, in a number of countries.

"The speed with which this virus has been identified and the sharing of that information by China has been amazing, a testament to the changes in public health in China since SARS and [to] the global coordination through the World Health Organisation. That has meant that the world is much more prepared to identify patients and take the necessary public health and clinical measures than it was even a week ago."

Dr Farrar said that mild and asymptomatic symptoms might be "masking the true numbers of people who have been infected, and the extent of person-to-person transmission".

Ahead of the Chinese New Year, he warned: "There is more to come from this epidemic."

Dr Nathalie MacDermott from King’s College London, said: "The virus is currently identified using a real time polymerase chain reaction, this identifies the viral RNA in the biological sample from the patient, which could be a throat swab, a cough sample or possibly a blood sample if the patient is very unwell.

 "The UK population currently is not exposed to the virus as there have not been any confirmed cases in the UK at present."

In response to reports in the media that a British man in Thailand has symptoms similar to the Wuhan coronavirus, Prof John Edmunds from the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), said: "Whilst there have been two cases that have travelled to Thailand from Wuhan, there is no evidence of any transmission of this virus in Thailand as yet. Hence, although it is possible that this is a case of the novel coronavirus, it would seem very unlikely."

Avian Flu Warning

Travellers were also warned of the risk of avian flu when visiting China, where reports of human cases have been reported.

Advice on avian flu had previously been issued by PHE.

Editor's Note, 23rd January 2020: This article was updated for clarity over real time polymerase chain reaction.

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