China says virus spreads ‘before symptoms show’

Monday, January 27th, 2020 00:00 |
People wear face masks while commuting on a train on the second day of the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong. Photo/AFP

Beijing, Sunday

A new coronavirus that has spread to almost 2,000 people is infectious in its incubation period—before symptoms show—making it harder to contain, Chinese officials say.

Some 56 people have died from the virus. Health minister Ma Xiaowei told reporters the ability of the virus to spread appeared to be strengthening.

Several Chinese cities have imposed significant travel restrictions. Wuhan in Hubei, the source of the outbreak, is in effective lockdown.

The infections were at a “crucial stage of containment”, Ma Xiaowei said. “According to recent clinical information, the virus’ ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger.” 

Officials announced that the sale of all wildlife in China would be banned from Sunday.

The virus is thought to have originated in animals, but no cause has been officially identified.

In humans, the incubation period, during which a person has the disease, but no symptoms yet, ranges from between one and 14 days, officials believe.

Without symptoms, a person may not know they have the infection, but still be able to spread it.

This is unlike Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)—the last deadly coronavirus outbreak to hit China—and Ebola, which are contagious only when symptoms appear. SARS killed nearly 800 people globally in 2003.

Health authorities around the world are racing to prevent a pandemic after a handful of cases of infection were reported outside China, including in Thailand, Australia, Japan, the US, France, Malaysia and Singapore.

The World Health Organisation this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can contain the epidemic.

Grave situation

Chinese President Xi Jinping described the situation as “grave” on Saturday.

Outside the epicentre, Shandong province and four cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Tianjin—announced bans on long-distance buses entering or leaving their borders, a move that will affect millions of people travelling over the Lunar New Year holiday.

The Lunar New Year holiday, traditionally celebrated by hundreds of millions of Chinese traveling around the country and abroad to see family, began on Friday but has been severely disrupted by the outbreak.

The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the US, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government was working with China to arrange a charter flight for its nationals to leave Wuhan.

Symptoms seem to start with a fever, followed by a dry cough and then, after a week, lead to shortness of breath and some patients needing hospital treatment. There is no specific cure or vaccine. -Agencies

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