Doctors have warned it is “crucial” to isolate patients and quarantine all those they have been in recent contact with to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus which has now killed over 40 people infected over 1,000 and spread from Asia to Europe, the US and Australia.
The warning comes as doctors in China report that asymptomatic infection appears possible, after a case in which six of seven family members were infected, including a 10-year-old with no symptoms who was tested as a precaution and was also found to have contracted the virus.
After returning from the city of Wuhan, in central China, where the outbreak started, to Shenzhen, in the southeast of the country, five of the family members went to hospital suffering from fever, upper or lower respiratory tract symptoms, or diarrhoea, or a combination of these symptoms, which doctors say emerged 3-6 days after exposure to the virus.
One family member who visited Wuhan was not infected, but another who had not visited Wuhan, but then spent time with their relatives when they returned, has been infected.
The virus bears several similarities to that of the 2002-3 SARS outbreak which eventually killed 774 people, with the majority of cases in China. However, writing in medical journal The Lancet, doctors say “asymptomatic patients with SARS were uncommon”, though they note they were documented during a minor resurgence of the virus in 2004.
Asymptomatic carriers of the virus will be of considerable concern for authorities desperately attempting to control the spread of Coronavirus.
“These cryptic cases of walking pneumonia might serve as a possible source to propagate the outbreak. Further studies on the epidemiological significance of these asymptomatic cases are warranted,” the study says.
Authorities shut down public transportation in Wuhan earlier this week, as well as flights and trains out of the city.
The transportation bans have now been expanded to 16 cities, with three more added on Saturday, effectively holding a population of more than 50 million people hostage to the disease.
In Wuhan 6,000 taxis will be assigned to different neighbourhoods to help people get around if they need to, the English-language China Daily newspaper said.
China’s biggest holiday, the Lunar New Year, unfolded in the shadow of coronavirus. Authorities cancelled a host of Lunar New Year events, and closed major tourist sites and cinemas.
The country’s National Health Commission reported a jump in the number of infected people to 1,287 with 41 deaths. The latest tally comes from 29 provinces and cities across China and includes 237 patients in serious condition. All 41 deaths have been in China, including 39 in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, and one each in Hebei and Heilongjiang provinces.
Health authorities in the city of Hechi in Guangxi province said a 2-year-old girl from Wuhan had been diagnosed with the illness after arriving in the city.
Australia announced its first case on Saturday, a Chinese man in his 50s who last week returned from China.
Malaysia has said three people tested positive on Friday, and were all relatives of a father and son from Wuhan who had been diagnosed with the virus earlier in neighboring Singapore.
France has said three people had fallen ill with the virus - the disease’s first appearance in Europe. And the United States reported its second case, a Chicago woman in her 60s who was hospitalized in isolation after returning from China.
China added three cities to those cut off from transportation, bringing the total to 16 in Hubei province and covering a population greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.
The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks including SARS and Ebola, who arrived in Wuhan late on Friday night to help treat the many patients hospitalised with viral pneumonia, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. Symptoms include cough and fever and in more severe cases shortness of breath and pneumonia, which can be fatal.
SARS was a form of coronavirus.
Stocks slumped on Friday on Wall Street as economic fears grew over the widening crisis. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 170 points and the S&P 500 posted its worst day in three months. Shares in health care companies were down, along with those in financial institutions, airlines and other tourism and travel industry businesses.
It remains unclear exactly how lethal the new coronavirus is, or even whether it is as dangerous as the ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the US alone.
The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse. It could instead reflect better monitoring and reporting of the newly discovered virus, which can cause cold and flu-like symptoms, including cough, fever and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.
China’s National Health Commission said on Saturday it is bringing in medical teams from outside Hubei to help handle the outbreak, a day after videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations and complaints family members had been turned away at hospitals already at capacity.
The Ministry of Commerce is coordinating an effort to supply more than 2 million masks and other products from elsewhere in the country, Xinhua said.