Indians back from Wuhan placed under close watch

Updated on Jan 24, 2020 01:39 AM IST

Known till now only as the novel coronavirus, the pathogen is believed to have begun spreading to humans from a meat market in Wuhan, a city in central China, which on Thursday became one of five in the country to be put under an unprecedented lockdown.

At least 25 students who have returned from colleges in Wuhan to their homes in India are under close watch for symptoms of a deadly new virus(Bloomberg)
At least 25 students who have returned from colleges in Wuhan to their homes in India are under close watch for symptoms of a deadly new virus(Bloomberg)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi/Beijing | ByRhythma Kaul and Sutirtho Patranobis

At least 25 students who have returned from colleges in Wuhan to their homes in India are under close watch for symptoms of a deadly new virus that has triggered a global health alarm, officials said on Thursday as authorities around the world stepped up efforts to avert a wider contagion.

Known till now only as the novel coronavirus, the pathogen is believed to have begun spreading to humans from a meat market in Wuhan, a city in central China, which on Thursday became one of five in the country to be put under an unprecedented lockdown.

“We are in touch with the Indian embassy in China and getting details of passengers [travelling from China] on a daily basis. While close to 1,200 students might be studying there (Wuhan) as per our information, so far 25 students who have recently come back to India from the outbreak city have been identified. All of them are being closely monitored. None of the students is symptomatic,” said a senior health ministry official who asked not to be named.

The virus, which has killed 18 people and has infected at least 600 others in China alone, has reached as far as the United States and is feared it will spread further with millions of Chinese and expats based in China expected to travel over the coming lunar new year holidays.

Most Indian students are believed to have begun travelling back home and elsewhere since January 10, days before concerns about the outbreak forced airports across the world to screen and isolate suspected patients in order to curb the spread. India began the screening at some airports on Friday before expanding it to all airports handling flights from Chinese cities on Monday.

“Their details have been shared with district-level officers; we even have their mobile numbers. They are being counselled and under close watch,” said the health ministry official.

Health officials had approached the ministry of external affairs and Indian embassies in China for details of students who may be in the affected region -- information that seemed to not have been readily available.

According to people familiar with developments, one of the biggest problems is that many of the 23,000-odd Indian students in China aren’t registered with the embassy in Beijing or the two consulates. The students also aren’t expected to inform the missions about their arrival and departure schedules, according to officials in Beijing and the MEA who asked not to be named.

Indian embassy and consulate officials in China have compiled details of students from Wuhan available with them and sent the information to New Delhi, one of these officials added. The list isn’t comprehensive, this person admitted. The number is estimated to be around 600-700.

The embassy in Beijing has started two hotlines (+8618612083629 and +8618612083617) and advised Indians to keep track of its social media accounts (Twitter:@EoIBeijing; Facebook: India in China) for updates.

On Thursday evening, Chinese officials announced suspension of public transport in five cities — Huanggang, Ezhou, Zhijiang, Qianjiang and Wuhan in Hubei province, official media reported. No trains or planes were allowed to arrive in or depart from Wuhan, the city of 11 million people where the virus is believed to have first emerged. In all, nearly 20 million people have virtually been quarantined – a number equivalent roughly to Delhi’s population at present.

The coronavirus is a large family of viruses – which derives its name from a crown-like shape -- that causes illnesses ranging from common cold to acute respiratory syndromes, but the virus that has killed people in China is a new strain.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), the information regarding the virus is still evolving and there is more information required before a decision can be taken on whether or not to declare the outbreak an international public health emergency.

“There’s not much clarity right now about the overall virus behaviour such as what is the incubation period, severity of infection, or mutability. And there is absolutely no information currently on how the virus will behave among Indian population, so the approach will be direct to treat the existing symptoms,” said a senior researcher at the National Centre for Disease Control, Delhi.

Since India began screening of passengers on January 17, close to 12,000 passengers have been screened.

On Thursday, junior foreign minister V Muraleedharan said a woman from Kerala had tested positive for the coronavirus in Saudi Arabia. Hours later, however, the Indian embassy in Jeddah said the infection was of the MERS coronavirus, not the unknown pathogen associated with Wuhan.

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