Global health policymakers have announced that they are investigating the emergence of a new virus — one very similar to the dangerous severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus — in Thailand and Japan, hinting at worries that it could spread farther.
SARS is part of the coronavirus family, which encompasses a range of airborne viruses. These can cause infections of varying degrees of severity.
In the case of SARS, the first symptom is a high fever and sometimes coughing. A person with the infection usually develops pneumonia, which can become life threatening.
A SARS epidemic in 2002–2003 affected people in as many as 26 countries, and most cases occurred in mainland China and Hong Kong.
In mainland China, the SARS virus infected more than 5,300 people and led to the death of 349, while in Hong Kong it affected 1,750 people and resulted in the death of 286 individuals.
After 2003, the SARS virus dropped off the radar, for the most part. However, in December 2019, Chinese authorities reported the emergence of a series of new coronavirus infections.
According to information available to the World Health Organization (WHO) at the start of 2020, 41 cases of the novel coronavirus had been diagnosed in Wuhan, the capital of Huabei province in central China. Of the infected individuals, seven are “severely ill,” the WHO report.
Chinese authorities have said that these cases appear to be connected with attendance at a seafood market in the Wuhan city center. The market has been closed since January 1, 2020.
But the infection has not been contained in China, according to new reports that may prompt the WHO to call an Emergency Committee meeting to investigate the situation.
New cases put authorities on alert
On January 14, authorities in Thailand reported that, using thermal surveillance, they had intercepted a 61-year-old Chinese woman from Wuhan who was visiting the country.
The woman was clearly feverish, and the authorities transported her from Suvarnabhumi airport to a hospital, where doctors determined that she had an infection with the novel coronavirus.
However, the woman said that she had not visited the seafood market connected with the other cases. This suggests that she came into contact with another, still unknown, source of the virus.
Thai authorities are currently monitoring the health of 182 other individuals who may have had contact with the woman during the flight to Thailand.
According to data reported by Hong Kong’s Department of Health, the Chinese woman, who received medical care upon her arrival in Thailand, has now recovered.
But the scare is not over. Prof. Yuen Kwok-yung, an expert in coronaviruses from the University of Hong Kong, has said that genetic sequencing of the new virus has revealed that it is about 80% similar to the one that causes SARS.
Following the case reported in Thailand, “WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will consult with Emergency Committee members and could call for a meeting of the committee on short notice,” a recent WHO statement informs.
The potential for the virus to spread farther seems increasingly pressing, as Japanese authorities have also confirmed a case of infection.
Representatives of the country’s health ministry have announced that the case involves a Japanese man in his 30s, who first developed a fever when visiting Wuhan earlier in January.
Upon his return to Japan, he was hospitalized, and doctors diagnosed an infection with the novel SARS-like virus. Like the Chinese visitor in Thailand, the Japanese man states that he did not visit the seafood market connected with the other cases of infection.
The health authorities did, however, indicate that the man had been in contact with other individuals with the infection, suggesting that the viral strain can be transmitted from person to person.