Virus footprint grows; 11 isolated across India
Up to 11 people in five states were the first to be quarantined in India, China placed tens of millions more under citywide lockdowns, and the number of dead and infected due to a deadly new virus rose sharply as authorities around the world raced on Friday to avert a global contagion.
Temporarily titled 2019-nCoV (novel coronavirus), the pathogen had till Friday killed at least 26 people and sickened 900 more since it began spreading from a meat market in China’s Wuhan in late December. The number of fatalities were 18 on Thursday.
New infections were reported from Italy, Nepal and a second American city (Chicago), and authorities in China’s Hubei province – outbreak’s ground zero Wuhan falls in the region -- said a 36-year-old man who died of a sudden cardiac arrest is the youngest fatality due to the virus yet.
Chinese authorities also expanded a lockdown announced in five cities on Thursday to 13 on Friday, stranding an estimated 41 million people across an area roughly equivalent to the size of Canada. Parts of the Great Wall of China, too, were closed.
In India, none of the thousands who have arrived from Chinese cities in the last fortnight have so far tested positive for an infection, but at least 11 were believed to have been quarantined till Friday with flu-like symptoms before four of them were declared uninfected late on Friday.
Flu-like symptoms are common to a nCoV infection, which poses the highest risk to people who are vulnerable due to their age or the existence of other infections.
Indian officials are tracking dozens of people, including students who were in Wuhan when the outbreak began. In addition to the four who were cleared, seven more are under isolated observation in Kerala, news agency PTI reported. Of these, two were in state capital Thiruvananthapuram and one each in Thrissur, Kochi, Kozhikode and Pathanamthitta.
“Other than cold and tiredness, the three patients [in Mumbai] don’t have any other symptoms of the virus. But just to make precautionary measures, we have kept them under observations. Their blood samples have been sent to National Institute of Virology for examination,” said Dr Padmaja Keskar, executive health officer, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), before some of the results came out as negative. BMC officials said the patients will be kept in the hospitals for further examination.
Results in such cases are usually available within 24 hours.
The most prominent concern regarding the infections have to do with an estimated 600-700 Indians who are studying in Wuhan and are largely believed to have travelled back home or to other nations ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays that have begun in China. The Nepalese citizen, whose infection was confirmed on Friday, was also a student in Wuhan.
Top global health experts, such as those from the World Health Organization, are yet to determine how the virus behaves – information that is crucial to identify how lethal it is, how fast it spreads and how it can be stopped and cured.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) decided against calling the outbreak in China a public health emergency of international concern, India began the screening at three international airports on last Friday before expanding it to all airports accepting flights from Chinese cities on Monday.
“India has been closely monitoring people coming back from China, especially those with symptoms. In case of these three, they had fever. These are merely suspected cases as of now. The samples have been sent to NIV Pune but the report isn’t out yet. There’s constant screening taking place at our international airports, and anyone with symptoms and travel history to China will be isolated,” said a senior health ministry official.
As on January 24, 20,844 passengers from 96 flights have been screened for the virus symptoms. On Friday alone 4,082 passengers were screened in 19 flights.
In Delhi, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital on Friday readied isolation wards.
“Mortality due to novel coronavirus may not be high but we still need to be vigilant because we don’t want it to spread rapidly here. The important issue here is to have good control to prevent the infection from spreading,” said AIIMS director Randeep Guleria, according to news agency IANS.
Most of the nCoV cases and all of the deaths have been in China, but the virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal and the United States.
Russia on Friday became the first country to suspend some direct flights to China, as global equities and commodities markets showed signs of nervousness over the outbreak.
The previously unknown strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in Wuhan. On Friday, officials in China announced stricter and more targeted measures, including a new hospital in a staggering 10 days to treat patients at Wuhan, state media reported.
The facility is expected to be in use by February 3 to serve a rising number of patients infected by the coronavirus. Dozens of excavators and trucks were filmed working on the site by state broadcaster CCTV.
The hospital will have a capacity of 1,000 beds spread over 25,000 square metres (270,000 square feet), the official Xinhua news agency said.
Xinhua said the new facility is aimed at “alleviating the shortage of medical treatment resources and improving the ability to care for patients”.
“We’ve mobilised all the workers left in Wuhan to work in shifts to ensure round-the-clock construction,” said Zhang Chongxi, manager of building group Wuhan Construction, according to Xinhua.
In 2003, China erected a hospital on Beijing’s rural outskirts in barely a week to cater to a rapidly rising number of patients suffering from SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed 349 people in mainland China and 299 in Hong Kong in 2002-2003.