China braces for spread of deadly new virus as millions travel for Lunar New Year

The cold weather; congested planes and trains; distant relatives reuniting to imbibe and embrace—holidays are a hotbed for spreading germs, and this Chinese New Year could be much worse than most.

For the past five weeks China has been dealing with the outbreak of a novel respiratory infection—a brand new strain of coronavirus, which is a family of disease that includes the common cold and the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Over 200 patients have been infected across five Chinese provinces; carriers have been detected in Thailand, Japan and South Korea; airports are implementing new screening measures; and the World Health Organization (WHO) has called an emergency meeting.

On Monday, President Xi Jinping demanded that the flu-like virus be “resolutely contained,” but with millions of Chinese planning to travel during this week’s national holiday to celebrate the lunar new year, containment is going to become a much bigger issue.

A novel virus

It started in Wuhan, the densely populated capital of China’s central Hubei province, in December last year. Patients at a local hospital presented flu-like symptoms, which doctors couldn’t pin the exact cause of. That’s because doctors had never encountered the disease before. On Dec. 31, Wuhan health authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO) those patients were suffering from a new strain of a common virus, the coronavirus, and set about containing the disease.

A seafood market, deemed to be ground zero for the viral outbreak, was shuttered and sprayed for decontamination Jan. 1. As a number of patients had visited the market before falling ill, the prevailing theory was that the coronavirus made the leap from animal to human, much in the way SARS traces its origin to civet cats.

By Jan. 14, officials had reported a total of 41 cases of infection from the novel coronavirus, all of them within Wuhan—but individuals carrying the disease had turned up in Japan and Thailand, having flown from Wuhan. Other regions have begun preparing for more carriers to arrive

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) imposed additional health screening measures at three U.S. airports for passengers arriving from Wuhan, and deployed 100 additional staff to facilitate the extra checks. The three airports—New York’s JFK, Los Angeles’s LAX and San Francisco’s SFO—receive the majority of arrivals from Wuhan, the CDC said.

In Hong Kong, a city that has vivid memories of the SARS crisis in 2002, which infected 1,750 people locally and killed 286, the health authority implemented additional screening for tourists from Hubei province on Monday. There are already at least 107 suspected cases of the new virus in the city, but zero have been confirmed.

“There may be the first confirmed case in Hong Kong at any minute, so we must not let our guard down, and have to be well prepared with the most adequate response in place,” Hong Kong health secretary Sophia Chan said.

Tallying up

As patients began appearing overseas, savvy observers questioned how the disease had managed to spread abroad but had yet to appear in any other Chinese cities. Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of global health research trust Wellcome, said, “Wuhan is a major hub and with travel being a huge part of the fast approaching Chinese New Year, the concern level must remain high. There is more to come from this outbreak.”

Unfortunately, China has a track record of hushing up epidemics. In 2003, when SARS was sweeping the nation, authorities deliberately quashed reports that a mysterious new virus was gripping the country. It wasn’t until a whistle blower, Dr Jiang Yanyong, exposed the true situation to international press that Beijing came clean about the outbreak.

A year later, Jiang thought to try his luck a second time and wrote a letter to the government, pressuring Beijing to apologize for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The good doctor was arrested shortly after.

Beijing has since reformed its epidemic control practices and was quick to alert the WHO when the new coronavirus was discovered. However, on Jan. 17 a team of researchers at Imperial College London released a report casting serious doubt over China’s claim that only 41 people had contracted the disease.

“It is likely that the Wuhan outbreak of a novel coronavirus has caused substantially more cases of moderate or severe respiratory illness than currently reported,” the authors wrote, arguing that given typical transmission rates and the volume of passengers in and out of Wuhan international airport alone, the number would more likely be at 1,723.

Days later, authorities in Wuhan announced 139 new cases of the virus, more than tripling the total infected count to 180. By the end of Monday, there were a total of 258 cases in Wuhan. Meanwhile, reported cases appeared in Beijing, Zhejiang, Shenzhen and Guangdong province, while the death count has crept to six.

In the air

Dr Josie Golding, epidemics lead at Wellcome, thinks the uptick in reported cases is normal, saying that it sounds like a virus that is growing.

“I believe China has responded well to the situation. Beijing has communicated well with the WHO on this outbreak and have openly shared the sequence of the virus, which has allowed laboratories around the world to get prepared and develop the test required to detect this,” Golding says.

The situation is developing fast. On Monday Zhong Nanshan, the man leading the team set up by China’s National Health Commission to investigate the new virus, confirmed that the disease can be transmitted between humans. Previously, investigators maintained the virus was transmitted only from animals to humans. According to Zhong, in one instance 14 medical staff were infected by just one patient.

The WHO has scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday to discuss how best to limit the virus’ spread, but markets are already placing bets. Shares of China-listed drug makers and face mask manufacturers surged Monday, with many rising by the daily 10% max, while Hong Kong-listed Air China and China Eastern Airlines fell 7%. When SARS struck in 2003, shares in Cathay Pacific tumbled nearly 30%.

“We’re in a much better situation now than we were with SARS,” Golding says, “We’ve learned a lot of lessons. The biggest issue now is not so much on China but it’s for the rest of the world to make sure they’re adequately prepared for these cases to come into their hospitals.”

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