Fatalities double as coronavirus mutates in China
A deadly new strain of coronavirus is mutating into a more virulent disease that can be transmitted through airborne droplets from coughing or sneezing, Chinese scientists warned on Wednesday as the death toll nearly doubled to nine in just 24 hours and the number of confirmed cases across the country climbed to 440.
China’s National Health Commission vice-minister, Li Bin, said 2197 cases of close contact with patients had now been confirmed and there was “the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease”.
All nine deaths were in the central city of Wuhan where the outbreak — known only as 2019 Novel Coronavirus — is believed to have originated late last month at a seafood and livestock market that has since been closed.
It has since spread to South Korea, Japan and Thailand, with the US, Macau and Taiwan also reporting their first confirmed cases on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Chinese officials are scrambling to enforce containment measures, just days before hundreds of millions of people travel across the country and abroad for the Chinese New Year holiday.
Strict prevention and control measures are in force, granting authorities sweeping powers to lock down affected areas and quarantine patients — as occurred during the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak.
Several major new year events have been cancelled in Wuhan where officials have begun vehicle inspections to prevent live animals from being taken into or out of the city. Tour groups leaving the city have also been cancelled as authorities appeared to be considering a city-wide lockdown.
“Public gatherings are (being) kept at a minimum level,” Mr Li said on Wednesday, adding the government was also advising people to minimise travel.
China also would step up co-operation with the World Health Organisation, he said. An emergency WHO meeting in Geneva was scheduled for late Wednesday to determine whether to declare a rare global public health emergency over the disease.
In the meantime, body-temperature checks and disinfection stalls have been installed at airports, rail and bus terminals and shopping centres across China.
With memories still fresh of the deadly 2002 SARS virus that swept Asia, killing 774 people and infecting more than 8000 others, authorities across Asia are implementing measures to contain a virus that triggers pneumonia among carriers.
Indonesia has issued travel advisories to its citizens alerting them of affected countries, put hospitals on alert and installed thermal body scanners across all 135 entry points into the country, including seaports. Incoming passengers from affected countries are being asked to fill out health cards, as are visitors from affected areas travelling to Australia.
Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Russia, Malaysia and Vietnam have begun scanning body temperatures at airport arrival gates, while North Korea announced a temporary ban on foreign tourists.
The new virus comes from the same class of pathogens as the SARS disease, which was believed to have originated in bats before being transmitted to other small animals and then passed on to humans. The SARS virus quickly mutated — as has the latest outbreak — to one that could be transmitted through human-to-human contact, and through small droplets of saliva coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person.
While Chinese officials say they believe the new strain originated in illegal wildlife sold at the Wuhan market, a joint research paper released on Wednesday by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the People’s Liberation Army and Institut Pasteur of Shanghai has suggested it, too, may have originated in bats.
While Wuhan authorities were right to quickly close down and sterilise the market, an editorial on Wednesday in the international scientific journal Nature warned that “in their rush to do so they might have missed a chance to test the animals” and identify the exact source of the virus.