Late last week, officials were urging awareness but downplaying potential panic over a new virus coming out of China.
What a difference a few days makes.
On Monday, the World Health Organization announced an emergency meeting would be held Wednesday over what is being called the “novel coronavirus,” or 2019-nCoV for short.
The WHO will meet “to ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it,” the organization tweeted.
The Emergency Committee on the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) will ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it pic.twitter.com/dFpOkM0CSN
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 20, 2020
The heightened urgency is due to the fact that new reports coming out of China indicate the virus, which has killed at least four people and sickened more than 200, can be passed from person to person.
On Friday, when the Centers for Disease Control announced screenings at three U.S. airports to stop the virus from entering the U.S., it had killed two people and sickened more than 40.
It wasn’t clear then if the virus could spread from humans to other humans. The initial virus was spread by people who visited a now-closed seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan, China.
And health care workers who treated infected individuals in China did not become infected themselves, the CDC noted at the time.
“Now we can say it is certain that it is a human-to-human transmission phenomenon,” Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese scientist leading the government’s response to the outbreak, said Monday on Chinese state-run TV, according to The New York Times.
One expert said a pro-active response in necessary.
“There are now sufficient cases that it’s not going to die out by chance,” Neil Ferguson, a public health expert at Imperial College in London, told The Times. “The real question now is, how efficiently can this virus spread from person to person?”
Zhong said that in the first confirmed cases of person-to-person transmission, two people in Guangdong Province in southern China were infected by family members who had traveled to Wuhan.
Contrary to initial reports that no medical workers were infected, one patient appeared to have infected 14 health care workers, he said.
Zhong, one of the scientists who helped identify the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus in 2003, said the disease was “climbing” and that the “death rate at the moment is not so representative,” according to CNN. In 2002 and 2003, SARS infected more than 8,000 people worldwide and killed 774.
On Friday, the CDC said travelers from Wuhan, China, would be screened at the three airports where the highest number of travelers from Wuhan arrive from — San Francisco International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport and New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The CDC’s website says “the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is deemed to be low at this time. Nevertheless, CDC is taking proactive preparedness precautions.”
“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” Xi said. “Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first.”
The virus has made its way to Thailand, Japan and South Korea, all through travel from China.
After much inertia, China has confirmed that previously declared pneumonia sickness is now a new form of coronavirus outbreak. Further, more cities have confirmed cases, the virus can be transmitted by humans and medical professionals have been infected. pic.twitter.com/VP91thncLO
— Edwin Kwan (@edwinkwan11) January 20, 2020
Some accounts question the official figures.
“There are numerous unconfirmed posts and stories online claiming Wuhan hospitals are overflowing with victims or showing staff in full protective gear. Those may just be rumors, but the government numbers are definitely suspicious, especially the sudden jump over the weekend,” Foreign Policy wrote, adding, “Foreign doctors estimate the number may be as high as 1,700 cases, using models of other outbreaks.”
The virus outbreak comes just before the start of the Lunar New Year holiday, a time when millions of Chinese travel to be with their families, increasing the potential for the disease to spread, according to the BBC.
“I believe Chinese tourists will bring the virus to many other countries in Asia in the coming days, due to their overseas travels during the Lunar New Year holiday,” Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told CNN.
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