A pneumonia outbreak in central China has widened with more than 200 people now diagnosed with the new SARS-like virus, as health experts say there’s now evidence that the illness is spreading from person to person.
Amid increased searching and testing for the novel virus among people with symptoms like fever and coughing, the number of cases in China surged over the weekend. With the Chinese New Year just days away — a holiday season during which Chinese citizens rack up 3 billion trips across the country to reunite with family — the virus’s spread is likely to intensify.
Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the center of the outbreak, now has almost 200 confirmed cases, including three fatalities. Cases were also reported in Beijing and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Across the region, South Korea detected its first case, adding to those found in Thailand and Japan last week.
The surge in incidences, after the World Health Organization released guidance for diagnostic detection of the virus Friday, confirmed that the new pathogen is being transmitted among humans, and not just from animals to humans as was originally hoped.
But there are no reports yet of health-care workers being infected, a sign that the new virus is likely not as infectious as SARS, which killed almost 800 people 17 years ago.
“It is clear that there is at least some human-to-human transmission from the evidence we have, but we don’t have clear evidence that shows the virus has acquired the capacity to transmit among humans easily,” said Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s regional director for the western pacific, in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Monday. “We need more information to analyze that.”
Countries across the world stepped up screening of incoming travelers ahead of the Chinese holiday that starts this Friday, a period of heightened travel for Chinese people. International airports in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco started screening from late Friday, joining cities in Asia that implemented surveillance measure days after the outbreak was reported on Dec. 31.
In Wuhan, health-care workers spread out across the city of 11 million, screening for symptoms among people on planes and at railway stations.
“This is a situation where we’re going to see additional cases all around the world as folks look for it more,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters Friday. “It’s highly plausible that there will be at least a case in the United States, and that’s the reason that we’re moving forward so quickly with this screening.”
It’s possible that more than 1,700 people in Wuhan have been infected with the virus, Neil Ferguson and colleagues at Imperial College London said in a study Friday. Their analysis was based on cases reported outside China last week, with the assumption that it takes five or six days for someone to feel unwell after being infected, and another four or five days for the infection to be detected.
Health authorities said that as of 10 p.m. Sunday, 25 of the city’s 198 cases had been cured. A further three had been discharged from the hospital. Currently, 170 cases are being treated in isolation wards at various hospitals, of which 126 cases are mild, 35 are severe, and nine cases are critically ill.
Of the 136 patients reported over the weekend, 66 were male and 70 were female; the youngest was 25 years old and the oldest was 89. The most recent illness occurred before Saturday, and initial symptoms were mostly fever, cough or chest tightness, and difficulty breathing.
Chinese authorities said the outbreak is “still preventable and controllable,” in an attempt to reassure the public as hundreds of millions of people prepare to travel ahead of the country’s biggest annual festivities.
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