US confirms first case of mystery virus from China, as WHO issues alert

Everything you need to know about the outbreak

coronavirus-us-getty - Copy Dr. Jay Cook of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett speaks during a press conference about the first confirmed US case | Getty via PTI

US health authorities on Wednesday announced the first case of a person on American soil sickened by a new virus that emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and intensified airport health screenings. The man, a US resident in his 30s who lives near Seattle, is in good condition, according to federal and state officials. The man is being "hospitalised out of an abundance of precaution, and for short term monitoring, not because there was severe illness," said Chris Spitters, a Washington state health official. The man hospitalised in Washington state had travelled to the US from Wuhan, but did not visit the seafood market thought to be at the heart of the outbreak. 

He entered the US on January 15—two days before health screenings for those travelling from Wuhan began at airports in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco—and approached health authorities himself after reading news reports about the virus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued an alert for the same.

China, on Monday, had reported that the mysterious SARS-like virus—originated in Wuhan—had spread across the country, including to Beijing, raising concerns as millions begin trips for the Lunar New Year. A third person was confirmed to have died, authorities said, as nearly 140 cases were announced. The new coronavirus strain has caused alarm because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003. In Wuhan, the central city where the coronavirus was first discovered, 136 new cases were found over the weekend, the local health commission said, without giving details about the person who died.

A total of 201 people have now been diagnosed with the virus in China. In Wuhan, 170 people are still being treated at hospital, including nine in critical condition, the city health commission said. Wuhan is a city of 11 million inhabitants that serves as a major transport hub, including during the annual Lunar New Year holiday when hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country to visit family.

What is the virus, and how does it spread?

China is continuing its search for the source of the previously unknown strain of coronavirus. Coronaviruses—which get its name from projections resembling corona (crown) on the surface of the virus—are a broad family, but only six are known to infect people. At the mild end, they cause the common cold, but SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a coronavirus that killed nearly 650 people in China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003. The new virus is believed to have originated in Wuhan. On Saturday, Chinese media reported the first known death from the viral infection. Coronaviruses rely on animal-to-human transmission. There are several known coronaviruses currently circulating in animals, that have not yet infected humans. Fears of a bigger outbreak rose after a prominent expert from China's National Health Commission confirmed late Monday that the virus can be passed between people.

 Epidemiological investigations into the 17 new cases are underway and close contacts are being traced. Epidemiological analysis of the previously published cases found that some cases had no exposure to Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which is believed to be related to most of the infected cases. It has been temporarily closed while disinfection is carried out. 

The WHO has issued guidance on how to detect and treat persons infected with the new strain of the virus. The standard recommendations for halting the spread of coronaviruses include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs, and avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing. Common signs of coronavirus infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

How have other countries responded?

A 45-year-old Indian school teacher in the Chinese city of Shenzhen is undergoing treatment for a Streptococcal infection, which was initially suspected to be a case of the mysterious SARS-like coronavirus prevalent in the country. India on Friday issued an advisory to its nationals visiting China and Wuhan, where over 500 Indian medical students are studying. Travel-related cases have been reported, one each in Thailand and Japan.

One case has been confirmed in Japan. Japan's health ministry said a man who had visited Wuhan, the apparent epicentre of the outbreak, was hospitalised on January 10, four days after his return to Japan. He reported having a persistent fever. Tests on the patient, who was released from hospital, confirmed he was suffering from the new virus. It appears to be only the second time the novel coronavirus has been detected outside China, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed cases in Thailand.

Thailand detected its second case of the virus on Friday, as authorities ramped up airport screenings ahead of an expected surge in arrivals for Chinese New Year. A 74-year-old Chinese woman is being treated at hospital after presenting with symptoms at Thailand's biggest airport Suvarnabhumi on January 13. She was diagnosed with pneumonia linked to the new coronavirus, which has stirred alarm after killing two in China and hospitalising dozens. It has also been detected in Japan. "People don't have to panic as there is no spread of the virus in Thailand," the ministry said in its statement. The woman, whose condition is improving, arrived from the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

-Inputs from PTI