SNAPSHOT: Novel coronavirus poses increasing global public health risk
- On 31 December 2019, Chinese state media reported that an outbreak of atypical pneumonia in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province, rumoured to be linked to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a deadly flu-like virus, was being investigated. Several of the infected worked at a seafood market in the city, which was subsequently shut down for disinfection.
- Although the Chinese government on 5 January said that the outbreak that infected 59 people was not SARS or several other diseases, authorities in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Taiwan increased border screening in response. Other countries, including South Korea, the UK and the US, soon followed. The disease claimed its first victim on 9 January, when a 61-year old man in Wuhan died. The current death toll stands at 17.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) on 13 January confirmed that a Chinese woman travelling to Bangkok via Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) had contracted the coronavirus, marking the first detection of the virus outside China. Emergency meetings were also held by the WHO to discuss whether to impose restrictions on trade and travel in China.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) on 14 January said that there has been ‘limited’ human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus, warning that there is potential for wider contamination. By 15-16 January, authorities in Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam had confirmed infections and suspected infections in individuals, some of whom had travelled to Wuhan.
- UK-based medical researchers on 17 January told the British media outlet BBC that it is probable the number of people infected with the coronavirus is far higher than previously reported, at around 1,700 rather than 41 cases confirmed by laboratory tests by then.
- Health officials in China on 20 January reported more than 200 infections. The authorities also confirmed the virus has spread to the capital Beijing, Shanghai and the southern city of Shenzhen adjacent to Hong Kong. They also confirmed that the new coronavirus spreads via human-to-human transmission, which can increase the spread of the virus at a quicker rate. President Xi Jinping reportedly on 20 January called for every possible measure to be taken to contain the virus.
- US health officials on 21 January reported that a man who had recently returned from Wuhan had tested positive for the novel coronavirus and had been placed in isolation in a hospital in Everett, Washington State. The Chinese government on 22 January said it is possible for the virus, for which there is evidence of 'respiratory transmission,' to mutate and spread further.
- In China, the current number of confirmed cases stands at 440 and deaths at 17. There are a further nine cases across Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Macau, South Korea, and the US. The number of cases worldwide is likely to continue to increase in the short term. The risk of a global spread is heightened through the large numbers of Chinese tourists, business travellers and students that travel globally.
- Chinese and international health authorities continue to focus on the threat posed by the virus spreading during the coming Lunar New Year, which formally begins at the end of this week and involves millions of people in China returning to their home communities or travelling overseas.
- The Chinese government, for example, has implemented containment measures such as ventilation and disinfection at shopping centres, train stations, and airports nationwide. It has also advised against gatherings in Hubei province, which includes Wuhan, as well minimise non-essential travel to urban centres nationwide. However, the effectiveness of these measures will be tested throughout the Lunar New Year period.
- Other countries in East Asia and beyond are likely to implement similar enhanced screening programmes as soon as they can source and deploy the appropriate equipment. If the virus spreads rapidly across East and South East Asia it is highly probable many countries outside the region will widen their screening precautions to cover all incoming flights from affected nations.
- If containment measures fail and a pandemic of the scale of SARS or greater emerges, then the adverse economic impacts would be considerable. Tour operators and air travel would likely be hit the hardest. Revenue from tourism to China alone fell by 60 per cent during the SARS pandemic from 2002 to 2004. Business travel would also likely be heavily reduced in a bid to contain the disease. Consumer spending, at least in physical stores and at hospitality and entertainment venues, would also be heavily reduced through much lower footfall.
- Companies operating in the East and South East Asia should assess what measures they may have to introduce in order to protect staff while maintaining operational continuity, including halting all travel to Wuhan.
- Business travellers and companies should also monitor updates from domestic authorities, including aviation and customs agencies, regarding potential restrictions on trade and transport in Asia and elsewhere. Further, the immediate impact of additional airport medical checks on business travellers and staff may involve increased processing times due to physical and document screening.
- Any personnel experiencing symptoms such as runny nose, cough, fever, headaches, shortness of breath, chills, and body aches should seek immediate medical attention. More information is available on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
- Travellers and staff should ensure they exercise suitable sanitary precautions, including regularly washing hands, in order to mitigate the risk of infection.