Latest Spread of COVID-19 is 'Worrying'

Peter Russell

February 24, 2020

Indications that COVID-19 could pass from person-to-person without symptoms were described as "worrying" by experts on Monday.

Italy experienced a surge in cases of the new coronavirus.

Several communities in Veneto and Lombardy were in 'lockdown' as authorities tried to limit the virus from spreading. Venice carnival was cut short.

On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Social Care added affected areas of Northern Italy to the list of self-isolation destinations for returning travellers, even if they don't have symptoms.

Elsewhere, health authorities in South Korea and Iran were trying to contain outbreaks of the virus.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said: "Over the weekend we've seen new cases of coronavirus infection across Asia and now in Europe. 

"Worryingly, it seems that the virus can pass from person-to-person without symptoms, making it extremely difficult [to] track, regardless of what health authorities do. 

"While it remains the case that most people who become infected will have light symptoms or none at all, such uncontrollable spread would present a serious risk to vulnerable individuals."

He was commenting, along with other experts, via the Science Media Centre.

Health Authorities 'Need to Brace for the Impact'

Prof Devi Sridhar, director of the Global Health Governance Programme at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, said that "the window of opportunity to contain the outbreak is closing quickly".

She warned there had been "a profound shift in the direction that COVID-19 is taking over the past 48 hours", and that "what is happening in Italy and South Korea and Iran could happen anywhere in the world".

Prof Sridhar told the Science Media Centre (SMC) that health systems should be "bracing for the impact that increasing COVID-19 patients will have on intensive care services, and ensure that systems are in place to keep up services for the other range of health challenges facing their populations".

Cruise Ship Passengers Test Positive

The latest warnings came as four cruise ship passengers flown to the UK on Saturday tested positive for COVID-19.

It brought the total number of cases in the UK to 13, the NHS said.

The four, who caught the virus on the Diamond Princess liner, docked in Japan, were among 30 repatriated Britons and two Irish citizens who were taken to Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral to begin a 14-day isolation period.

Patients with confirmed infection were transferred from Arrowe Park to specialist NHS infection centres, Prof Chris Whitty, England's Chief Medical Officer, confirmed at the weekend.

Two patients were in the Royal Hallamshire in Sheffield, one was in the Royal in Liverpool, and a fourth was transferred to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, it was reported.

Prof Keith Neal, emeritus professor of epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, explained to the SMC: "The UK authorities brought the passengers home as they would have continued to be at risk staying on the ship. These infected individuals will be kept in isolation and will be of no risk to the UK public."

Dr Nathalie MacDermott, an academic clinical lecturer at King's College London, said:  "It is not surprising that some of the British passengers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship have tested positive for SARS-COV2. It was apparent over the course of last week that quarantine on board the ship had failed as there were daily increasing numbers of COVID-19 identified on board. It was for this reason that the UK government sensibly required a further 14 day quarantine period for the repatriated passengers."

Janelle Holmes, chief executive of Wirral University Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, praised staff for dealing with "exceptional evolving circumstances". She said: "We always had a plan in place for this eventuality – and this has been carried out successfully.

"I want to repeat and reassure that we are continuing to work with national experts from PHE [Public Health England] at all times and they are on site, along with local infection control experts and other health care professionals."

Home Testing Kits

The NHS announced it had started pilots of home testing kits for coronavirus. The trials would mean that NHS staff could visit people in their homes, making it unnecessary for patients to travel.

Prof Keith Willett, NHS strategic incident director for coronavirus said: "We have started to pilot home testing for coronavirus in London, which will be carried out by NHS staff, like nurses or paramedics, allowing people to stay home rather than having to travel, which is safer for you and your family and limits the spread of infection.

"Anyone who is concerned they have signs and symptoms, should continue to use NHS 111 as their first point of contact – they will tell you exactly what you need to do and where necessary, the right place to be tested."

Editor's Note, 25th February 2020: This article was updated to include the latest advice for travellers returning from Northern Italy.


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