Concerns of a possible cover-up of the extent of a mysterious new respiratory virus in China emerged yesterday as three US airports began screening arrivals from Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak, and hundreds of millions of Chinese prepared to travel next week for lunar new year celebrations.
The British government said it had no plans to introduce screening.
The coronavirus is related to Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed 774 people worldwide in 2002. It is believed to have jumped to humans from infected animals at a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan last month.
Scientists at Imperial College London have calculated that it will be much more widespread than acknowledged so far by official Chinese government figures. The authorities in Wuhan had by today confirmed only 45 cases, including two deaths, since the outbreak last month.
Experts at Imperial’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis who modelled projections using what is known about the virus, population numbers and travel data, came up with a much higher figure released today. They estimated that the number of people in Wuhan with symptoms had probably already surpassed 1,700 last weekend and could be significantly higher.
Their findings also cast doubt on Chinese officials’ assertions that the virus was not spreading from human to human. The Imperial scientists pointed out that two Chinese travellers from Wuhan to Thailand and another to Japan who have been diagnosed with the virus — the first known cases outside China —“did not visit the seafood market implicated in the other cases”.
There is widespread scepticism that no cases in China have been reported outside Wuhan, the country’s seventh-largest city with 11 million inhabitants.
Chinese media today warned against rumours that a large number of people had been infected and pointed out that the punishment for spreading false information online included jail.
The timing of the outbreak — just before the world’s biggest annual migration of travellers for Chinese new year festivities — is fuelling fears that infections could spread rapidly. Up to 440 million railway trips and 79 million journeys by plane will be made by Chinese over the holiday, with millions flying overseas.
Thailand, the most popular overseas destination for new year holidaymakers, was among several Asian countries to introduce screening for visitors from China last week.
There are three direct flights a week from Wuhan to London, made by China Southern Airlines, and dozens of connections via other Chinese cities.
Explaining why the UK was not also screening, the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The Chinese authorities in Wuhan have introduced exit screening on departing flights. The UK is not introducing airport screening at this time but will keep it under constant review. The view of UK experts is that screening at UK airports will not significantly reduce the already very low risk to the UK public.”
In America, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention began to deploy staff this weekend at airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York to screen arrivals from Wuhan.
Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, said at a briefing to announce the screening measures at airports: “We know it is crucial to be proactive and prepared. It doesn’t take much for a virus in general to go from being worrisome to being extremely worrisome, because they tend to morph and mutate a lot.”
Officials from the World Health Organisation have concluded that the disease is caused by a new form of the coronavirus family, which causes respiratory ailments ranging from the common cold to much more serious conditions.
In 2002, when southern China was the origin of a Sars epidemic that infected more than 8,000 people in 37 countries, Beijing was accused of covering up the severity and spread of the disease.
So far, there are indications that the new coronavirus causes less severe illness than Sars. But there are fears that, as the virus spreads, it could mutate and become more lethal.