US health officials have confirmed the first case of a deadly new coronavirus that first emerged in China, as Beijing warned efforts to stem the spread of the outbreak had reached a critical moment. The US Centers for Disease Control and Protection said on Tuesday that a man in his 30s had been diagnosed with the Sars-like disease that has already killed nine people in China.
Officials said the patient, who had travelled from Wuhan to Washington state, was doing well but had been hospitalised and isolated “out of an abundance of caution”, after evidence emerged in China that the disease could spread through human-to-human contact. CDC said the man arrived in the US on January 15 and later sought treatment after developing flu-like symptoms.
He was taken to hospital last week, and on Monday it was confirmed that he had the virus. The disclosure came as Beijing warned the outbreak had come at a critical moment in the country, with hundreds of millions of people set to board planes and trains for the Chinese new year holiday this weekend. The disease has infected 440 people in China and cases have also been reported in Japan, South Korea, Macau, Taiwan and Thailand.
“Our experts believe the cases are mostly linked to Wuhan,” said Li Bin, vice-minister of China’s Health Commission. “Evidence shows that the disease is mainly transmitted through the respiratory tract and there is possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease.” The outbreak has sparked memories of the Sars virus in 2003, which also emerged in China and killed 800 people after officials initially attempted to cover up its impact.
The latest illness was caused by a coronavirus, the same type of pathogen behind Sars, but most patients have shown relatively mild symptoms. US officials are attempting to identify anyone who may have come into contact with the infected individual while he has been infectious. “The risk to the general public is low. There are a small number of healthcare workers and others who may have been exposed to the disease,” said one official. CDC added in a statement: “This is a rapidly evolving situation. CDC will continue to update the public as circumstances warrant.”
Initial reports of the US case were followed by a small sell-off in stocks, with the S&P 500 falling 0.25 per cent. A number of countries have implemented enhanced screening procedures at airports and other ports of entry. The US has screened about 1,000 travellers at New York’s JFK Airport, San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport, but has not been screening at Seattle-Tacoma airport, where the patient arrived.
This week, officials will start screening in Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare. In Wuhan, authorities have stopped people with fever and other flu-like symptoms from travelling at airports and train stations. The World Health Organization has scheduled a meeting of its emergency committee for Wednesday to discuss the outbreak.
North Korea, which shares a 1,420-km border with China, has suspended all tourism as a precaution due to the virus, according to travel operator Young Pioneer Tours. The move threatens a much-needed revenue stream for leader Kim Jong Un, and also highlights the risk epidemics pose to North Korea because of its inadequate public healthcare system.