We Might Have a New Public Health Emergency on Our Hands

New type of coronavirus has killed 17 in China, and WHO is meeting to discuss classification
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 22, 2020 1:13 PM CST
Updated Jan 22, 2020 2:13 PM CST
What We Know So Far About Mysterious, Deadly New Virus
Hospital staff wash the emergency entrance of Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, on Wednesday.   (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

The World Health Organization held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss whether to declare a "public health emergency of international concern" in response to cases of a new type of coronavirus, which has reportedly killed 17 people and sickened more than 500 others in China, per NPR and CNN. (Officials ultimately decided more information was needed, and will meet again Thursday.) The pneumonia-like virus that spreads from person to person was confirmed in Hong Kong on Wednesday, a day after the US reported its first case, while there's another possible case in Mexico. The CDC says several others in the US are being tested for the virus. The latest:

  • First detection: The virus, officially known as 2019-nCoV, was first reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, per CNET. However, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission says the first patient developed symptoms weeks earlier on Dec. 8, per CNN.
  • Underestimation: Officials in China say 509 people have now been infected across the country. But scientists at Imperial College London believe the true number is likely some 4,000 people due to underreporting that could be attributed to mild symptoms or delayed onset.
  • Symptoms: As for those symptoms, they range from mild to severe and include fever, dry cough, and difficulty breathing. Pneumonia can result as the virus progresses. The Washington Post has stories of some of the victims, plus those who are not officially considered victims—including a woman who thought she had a cold but ultimately died after her symptoms, identical to those of others with the virus, never improved. Her official cause of death, however, is listed as pneumonia. Stories like that lead many to believe cases of the virus are indeed being underreported.

  • Blame bats?: China's Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control said Wednesday that the virus originated in wild animals sold at a Wuhan seafood market, which has been closed for disinfection since Jan. 1, but the exact culprit has not been determined. On Tuesday, researchers suggested the "natural host could be bats … but between bats and humans there could be an unknown intermediate." The South China Morning Post reports the virus, like SARS, is a mutation of HKU9-1 virus found in fruit bats.
  • Comparison: Though the virus is considered "highly infectious," it is apparently weaker than and not as virulent as SARS, which infected more than 8,000 people during a 2002-03 pandemic, killing 774. Also in the coronavirus family: MERS, which infected nearly 2,500 people in the early 2010s, killing more than 850. Coronaviruses are typically found in animals, but can jump to humans; they're not always serious—sometimes they simply cause the common cold.
  • In Wuhan: It's now mandatory to wear face masks in public places in Wuhan, per CNN, and infrared thermometers are screening for fevers in the city home to some 11 million people. Business Insider describes a "soft quarantine" imposed by China's health commission. "Basically, do not go to Wuhan," vice minister Li Bin said Wednesday. "And those in Wuhan please do not leave the city." That could prove a challenge with travel peaking amid the Lunar New Year.
  • It's well-connected: Wuhan, China's seventh largest city and about the size of London, is "one of the biggest—and most connected—places in the world," reports the BBC. CNN notes there are more than 60 routes connecting Wuhan with other countries.
  • In the US: All US arrivals from Wuhan are being routed through New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, where they'll also be screened. More than 1,200 people have been screened so far, with no cases surfacing, per the Washington Post.
  • Trump responds: President Trump said Wednesday that the only confirmed US case was "one person from China and we have it totally under control," per NPR. Reports describe a man in his 30s hospitalized in Seattle after visiting relatives in China. The Post notes he's "not considered seriously ill."
  • Elsewhere: The virus has also spread to Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, which reported its first case on Wednesday. There's also an unconfirmed case in Tamaulipas, Mexico, per CNN, and a man in Australia is undergoing testing, per the Guardian. NPR reports that "even North Korea has suspended all foreign tourism activities as a precaution."
(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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