Europe’s first cases of the Wuhan coronavirus were confirmed in France on Friday, while Nepalese authorities announced the first infection in South Asia. A second case in the US was also confirmed as the global spread of the deadly pneumonia-like illness continued.
French health authorities have identified three cases in France: two patients were hospitalised in Paris and the other in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.
French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said the Bordeaux patient, aged 48, had returned two days earlier from a trip to China that included a stop in Wuhan, the epicentre of the contagion.
A Nepali student who had come home for the Lunar New Year holiday from school in Wuhan tested positive for the illness after “confirmation from the WHO Collaborating Centre in Hong Kong”, Reuters reported, citing a statement from Nepal’s Ministry of Health and Population.
The US patient, a woman in her 60s, had travelled to Wuhan in late December and returned on January 13, said Dr Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
“The patient is clinically doing well, is in stable condition, and remains hospitalised primarily for infection control,” Arwady said. “She was not symptomatic when flying, and based on what we know now about this virus our concerns for transmission before symptoms show up is low, so that is reassuring.”
The first confirmed US patient was a Seattle-area man in his 30s earlier this week.
The departments of health of Chicago and the state of Illinois “are investigating locations where this patient went after returning to Illinois and are identifying any close contacts who were possibly exposed”, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a press release.
“The patient has limited close contacts, all of whom are currently well and who will be monitored for symptoms,” it said.
Currently, there are 63 cases being tested and monitored in 22 states across the US, said Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, including the confirmed cases in Washington state and Illinois.
“It is likely there will be more cases reported in the US in the coming days and weeks,” the Atlanta-based health agency said. “CDC will continue to update the public as circumstances warrant.”
Screening is currently going on at five US airports: San Francisco, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, New York’s John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles’s LAX and Chicago’s O’Hare. More than 2,000 inbound passengers on approximately 200 flights were screened in the past day, authorities said, without finding evidence of any further cases.
The number of confirmed cases in mainland China is 1,112, with 41 deaths.
Experts said every nation faced its own social, political and logical challenges fighting a pandemic, although they stressed that these are still early days.
The US has relatively good preparedness and implementation plans for contagious diseases. As in many countries, such plans were significantly strengthened after the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) from China began in 2002.
US authorities responded quickly to the current coronavirus, with the airport screenings and monitoring of suspected cases, helped by the fact that the first patient in Washington state reported himself voluntarily rather than ignoring it and potentially spreading the disease.
In the past decade, the growth of social media has also helped improve public awareness.
“People are more aware of the coronavirus than Sars. But that’s a double-edge sword,” said Dr Courtney Gidengil, a contagious disease expert who directs the Boston office of the RAND think tank.
“You have to balance keeping the public safe versus creating an epidemic of fear,” she said. “You don’t want everyone to get freaked out.”
An added challenge for the US and other Northern Hemisphere countries is that the virus is emerging during a particularly bad winter flu season and many of the symptoms, such as a runny nose and fever, are similar.
That underscores the importance of ordinary flu vaccinations. Although there is not a known link between the flu and the coronavirus, having fewer people with ordinary colds and the flu frees up more hospital beds, staff and other resources should the worst happens and the new virus spreads rapidly and becomes more virulent.
Gidengil said that any vaccine against the coronavirus would take at least three months and that there was a good chance the immediate risk would be over by then.
The early detailing of the coronavirus’s genetic sequencing has allowed experts globally to start analysing its characteristics and work on screening protocols and a vaccine, said Dr Ron Waldman, a professor of global health at George Washington University.
The growing number of worrisome contagious outbreaks in recent decades, many out of China, reflects in part the rise of global travel and increased urbanisation, which tends to accelerate transmission.
Also a factor in China’s case is the country’s rapid economic growth, Waldman said. Rising incomes have increased the demand for animal protein, leading to more and larger live animal markets that appear to be related to the origin and transmission of the virus.
But China is hardly alone. The 2009 swine flu epidemic originated in Mexico, Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) was traced to Saudi Arabia and Ebola has been largely concentrated in Africa, experts noted.
Waldman said the World Health Organisation’s decision this week not todeclare the coronavirus a global emergency, at least for now, suggests that the WHO’s system needs to allow gradations between an emergency and no emergency.
Some have questioned the efficacy of Beijing’s decision to cordon off Wuhan and neighbouring communities.
“The notion of quarantine goes back to the Middle Ages, and it’s never been very effective,” said Waldman, adding that the cordons are almost always porous.
Arguably more effective are such measures as wearing masks, ensuring that people wash their hands frequently and limiting large gatherings, should this become a serious pandemic, which so far is not the case.
“You have to deal with it not just as a health issue,” he said, “but really as a whole of society issue.”
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