Health officials in Thailand and Japan have announced that a strange new virus, which has killed two people and sickened dozens of others in China, has appeared inside their borders this week. The virus, known as 2019-nCoV, was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December and questions remain about how it spreads, according to the World Health Organisation.
Officials in Thailand first identified the new virus in the country on January 13 and announced a second case today. Health officials in Japan publicly announced its first case of the mystery illness on Thursday, noting that a man in his 30s had been diagnosed with the virus before improving enough to be discharged from the hospital on January 15.
The illness is a coronavirus, part of a large family of viruses that can cause symptoms ranging from that of a common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, more commonly known as SARS. The new 2019-nCoV presents as having pneumonia-like symptoms and 41 people have tested positive for the virus so far, with five people still in critical condition from “severe infections.”
Health officials believe that the new virus can only be transmitted from animals to human and that the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan, which sells live animals, may be the culprit. And while there has been no confirmation of human-to-human transmission yet, the new patients in Thailand and Japan did not visit that particular market.
“Considering global travel patterns, additional cases in other countries are likely,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a statement posted online Thursday.
The first death from 2019-nCoV was recorded on January 9 after a 61-year-old man in Wuhan contracted the illness. The second death in China was reported yesterday, identified as a 69-year-old man also in Wuhan who was found to have severe damage to multiple organs and pulmonary tuberculosis.
In Japan, the man’s symptoms started on January 3 while he was travelling in Wuhan. The unnamed man travelled back to Japan on January 6 and was hospitalized upon returning from China, according to the New York Times. Health officials are particular concerned about his case, since he reportedly didn’t visit any market with live animals, though he did have close contact with other pneumonia patients, according to the Centre For Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota.
The virus popped up in Thailand after a 61-year-old Chinese woman from Wuhan visited the country, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health. The woman didn’t visit the seafood market in Wuhan that has been at the centre of the known 2019-nCoV illnesses, but she did visit a different market that may have had live animals.
Obviously, there’s much less concern about this new virus if it can’t be transmitted from person to person. As long as it can only travel from animal to human there are relatively straightforward precautions that can be taken to keep people healthy. The Huanan Seafood Market was shut down and cleaned on January 1, just a day after the potential link was discovered on December 31. The market has since reopened.
Some airports like the one in Narita, Japan are doing thermal scans of passengers to screen for anyone presenting with a fever. And a team at the German Centre for Infection Research in Berlin has reportedly developed a new lab test for 2019-nCoV that was published by WHO yesterday.
“Now that this diagnostic test is widely available, I expect that it won’t be long before we are able to reliably diagnose suspected cases. This will also help scientists understand whether the virus is capable of spreading from human to human,” Professor Christian Drosten said in a statement published online. “This is an important step in our fight against this new virus.”
Professor Drosten was on the team behind the Zika virus test that became the standard worldwide.
“The fact that some cases do not seem to be linked with the Huanan seafood market means we cannot exclude the possibility of limited human-to-human transmission,” WHO said in a tweet earlier this week.
“We are still in the early stages of understanding this new virus, where it came from, and how it affects people. There is still many unknowns, and the situation may continue to evolve.”