China coronavirus: 110 patients under observation in US, while other countries assess plans as more ill people identified globally

Owen Churchill

Officials from the top US public health agency said on Monday that 110 people around the country with a fever and respiratory illness have been placed under observation to determine if they have been infected with the China coronavirus.

Officials from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the “persons under investigation” (PUIs) came from 26 states and had all either travelled to the epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan, or had come into contact with confirmed infected patients.

The number “will only increase”, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, said in an agency briefing.

But the immediate health risk of the pneumonia-like illness – known as 2019-nCoV – to the US public remained low, she said: “At this time in the US, this virus is not spreading in the community.”

Meanwhile, other countries are assessing their own plans for the virus, with Germany joining other European countries with plans to extract their citizens from Wuhan, which is currently locked down.

According to Messonnier, The CDC has extracted and analysed the genomes from the first and second confirmed cases in the US and found that the virus did not appear to have mutated.

“All the sequences we’ve extracted are similar to the one that China initially posted a couple of weeks ago,” she said.

Three positive diagnoses over the weekend brought the total number of confirmed cases in the US to five.

The CDC’s assurances came despite the roll-out of drastic measures not only in China but also around the world as governments scramble to bolster defences against the contagion’s spread.

As of Tuesday, the death toll in China rose to 106 and nearly 1,300 new cases were confirmed - raising the total number of cases nationwide to 4,000, authorities said.

On Monday, China’s capital Beijing recorded its first death: a 50 year-old-man who visited Wuhan less than three weeks ago.

Experts believe that the true number of infections in Wuhan greatly exceeds the official figure, with a group of Hong Kong academics estimating the figure to be almost 44,000, according to an announcement on Monday.

International cases are also on the rise, with dozens confirmed across East and Southeast Asia. The South Asian island of Sri Lanka announced its first case on Monday.

Thousands left Wuhan for Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore or Tokyo before lockdown

Also on Monday, authorities in Macau announced the city’s seventh case, after the diagnosis of a 67-year-old woman who had travelled there from Wuhan.

News of the case came the same day that Macau, a semi-autonomous city state, stepped up measures against the virus, rolling out blanket screening of all people from Hubei province in every hotel. Authorities there announced on Sunday that about 1,100 Hubei visitors in the city needed to return to the mainland or be placed in isolation.

US Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, has called on President Donald Trump to declare a national health emergency concerning the Chinese coronavirus. Photo: EPA-EFE

Canada has announced two cases: a husband and wife who had travelled to Toronto from Wuhan on Wednesday. Public health officials there announced on Saturday that the husband was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre on Thursday, with the coronavirus diagnosed two days later.

He is in stable condition and his wife has been in self-isolation since arriving in Toronto, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported on Monday.

As the disease spreads, countries are drawing up plans to extract citizens from Wuhan, a city of 11 million which is effectively under lockdown along with numerous other cities in Hubei province.

Germany will repatriate 90 Germans living in the Wuhan area, Der Spiegel magazine reported on Monday, joining France, Portugal, Spain, Britain and the US, which have various plans to evacuate staff and citizens.

Medical staff members wearing protective clothing arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Britain’s health minister has asked around 1,500 people who arrived from Wuhan in the past two weeks to put themselves in isolation, Agence France-Presse reported.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that British authorities “cannot be 100 per cent certain” that the virus will not spread from a person who exhibits no flu-like symptoms. “From today, we are therefore asking anyone in the UK who has returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days to self-isolate,” he told a parliamentary hearing on Monday.

The US State Department issued a “do not travel” warning, a level 4 travel advisory – its most strict – for China’s Hubei province.

“Chinese authorities have imposed strict travel restrictions in the area around Wuhan,” the advisory said. “Travelers should be aware that the Chinese government could prevent them from entering or exiting parts of Hubei province. Travelers should be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice.”

For the whole of mainland China, the State Department raised its advisory to level 3, or “reconsider travel”.

In Washington, pressure is growing on the Trump administration to institute emergency measures.

Robert R. Redfield, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), arriving in Washington on Friday to brief senators on the coronavirus. Photo: EPA-EFE

In separate appeals, two prominent senators – Chuck Schumer of New York, the senior Democrat in the Senate, and Rick Scott, Republican of Florida – have called on US President Donald Trump to announce a national public health emergency. The move would release millions of dollars for the CDC to deploy in combating the disease’s spread in the US.

Trump said in a tweet on Monday that his administration had offered Beijing “any help that is necessary” and that his administration was “strongly on watch”.

Trump showered praise on Beijing last week for its “efforts and transparency” in combating the crisis, despite mounting criticism that the government initially played down the severity of the outbreak.

China coronavirus: Premier Li Keqiang orders Wuhan hospitals to admit patients

The mayor of Wuhan, who acknowledged that the municipal government’s “warnings were not sufficient”, offered to resign on Monday alongside the city’s Communist Party chief, as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the city.

The World Health Organisation decided last week that, with no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus outside China, it was “too early” to declare an international emergency. The organisation’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is now in Beijing meeting with officials.

A WHO spokeswoman said on Monday that the organisation’s emergency committee, which determines whether to declare a global health emergency, was “ready to reconvene” at short notice if needed.

Messonnier of the CDC said that it could be some time until a “definitive answer” was reached about the true severity of the disease. Experts, for example, are divided on the contagion’s “R0” figure, the metric determining how easily a disease can be transmitted.

To aid its analysis of the virus the CDC is collecting samples and growing the disease in cell culture, she said.

The agency has also developed a diagnostic test for the virus and would be distributing kits to “priority states” soon, Messonnier said, though she declined to identify which states those were.

Suggesting the technology could be made available to health authorities in China, she said that the testing kits would be distributed to international partners “in the coming weeks”.

Additional reporting by Cissy Zhou, Reuters and AFP

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