An ad hoc committee of the World Health Organization is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to determine whether to declare a “public health emergency of international concern”.
The new coronavirus, which has killed nine people and infected hundreds of others in China, “could mutate and spread more easily,” Chinese Vice Minister of the National Health Commission Li Bin warned on Wednesday (22 January). The announcement comes as hundreds of millions of Chinese are currently travelling across the country to be with their families during the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins Friday.
In response to the global concern, an ad hoc committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) is scheduled to meet from noon in Geneva to determine whether to declare a “public health emergency of international concern”.
Transmission through “close contact”
The strain in question is a new type of coronavirus, a cousin of the one responsible for SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) – a highly contagious virus that killed some 650 people in mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
This time, the origin of this new coronavirus appears to be in a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which has been closed since 1 January to limit the contagion. “It is assumed that the source was animals sold in this market and that there has been a passage into humans,” explains Professor Fontanet, head of the emerging disease epidemiology unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
On Monday, Zhong Nanshan, a renowned Chinese scientist from the National Health Commission, told the state television channel CCTV that transmission by contagion between people was “proven”. The WHO says that an animal appears to be “the most likely primary source”, with “limited human-to-human transmission through close contact”.
440 cases detected in China and already nine deaths
China, the epicentre of the epidemic, had 440 confirmed cases on Wednesday morning. Nearly 1,000 patients are also under observation, according to a statement by the National Health Commission, one of whose doctors, Wang Guangfa, said on Tuesday on a Hong Kong television that he himself was infected with the virus.
Nearly half of the country’s provinces are affected, including megalopolises like Shanghai and Beijing, where the French high school issued prevention instructions and distributed antibacterial gel to students, some of whom wore masks on Wednesday.
Relaying a call by President Xi Jinping to “stop” the epidemic, Li Bin announced preventive measures such as ventilation and disinfection at airports, train stations and shopping malls. Temperature detectors may also be installed in high-traffic areas. Isolation of people diagnosed with the disease is now mandatory and quarantine measures can be ordered by local authorities.
About ten cases already recorded abroad
Other cases of this mysterious pneumonia have been detected abroad. On Wednesday morning, a case was reported in Hong Kong, according to the local press. On the same day, the semi-autonomous Chinese region of Macao also reported a first case. Authorities detected the virus in a 52-year-old businesswoman who arrived on Sunday by train from the nearby city of Zhuhai.
On Tuesday, 21 January, the United States announced a first case on its territory. He is a man in his thirties who is hospitalized in Everett, near Seattle, Washington. The individual has not visited any of the Wuhan markets in China; he has only travelled in the region.
Prior to this, two cases had been detected in Thailand, one in Taiwan and one in Japan. Authorities in all three countries claim that the patients had all travelled to Wuhan prior to their hospitalization.
The virus was also identified in South Korea in a 35-year-old Chinese woman who arrived by plane from Wuhan on Sunday. Health authorities in the country revealed that she went to the hospital in the Chinese city of Hubei province on Saturday because of a cold. She had been prescribed medicine before she flew to Seoul, where her symptoms were detected. She was quarantined.
In addition to these proven cases, there is still doubt about the illness suffered by a 5-year-old Filipino child who arrived from Wuhan with a parent on 12 January.
Paris and Washington take action
In the rest of the world, preventive measures are also increasing. The United States has announced that from Friday it will begin screening flights from Wuhan at San Francisco Airport and John F. Kennedy (New York) – where direct flights from Wuhan land – as well as at Los Angeles, where there are many connections. Passengers will be examined by medical teams, but will not be routinely sampled.
In France, “vigilance has just been triggered,” Public Health France told Le Parisien on Monday. Doctors must now refer to the SAMU or “an infectious disease specialist” any person “presenting an acute respiratory infection, whatever its severity, who has travelled or stayed in the city of Wuhan in China in the fourteen days preceding the date of onset of clinical signs or who has had close contact with a person who became ill in this city”.