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Human-to-human transmission of coronavirus outside China is worrying, says WHO

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said “there is no evidence to suggest that any Irish citizen has contracted the virus”.

A Chinese medical worker checks the body temperature of a passenger for prevention of the new coronavirus and pneumonia at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport
A Chinese medical worker checks the body temperature of a passenger for prevention of the new coronavirus and pneumonia at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

Updated Jan 29th 2020, 9:50 PM

WORLD HEALTH OFFICIALS have expressed concern that the coronavirus is spreading between people outside China.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill during the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. The number of cases has jumped to 5,974, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with Sars.

The death toll, which stands at 132, is lower than the 348 people who died in China from Sars. Scientists say there are still many questions to be answered about coronavirus, including how easily it spreads and how severe it is.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) emergencies chief told reporters that China was taking “extraordinary measures in the face of an extraordinary challenge” posed by the outbreak.

Dr Michael Ryan spoke at a news conference after returning from a trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior government leaders.

He said the epidemic remains centred in the city of Wuhan and in Hubei province but that “information is being updated and is changing by the hour”.

Ryan said the few cases of human-to-human spread of the virus outside China – in Japan, Germany and Vietnam – were part of the reason the UN health agency’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reconvened an expert committee to meet on Thursday. It will assess whether the outbreak should be declared a global emergency.

The first cases in the Middle East have been confirmed as a family-of-four from Wuhan that was visiting the United Arab Emirates.

Australia and Singapore are among the countries reporting new cases, as the number outside China topped 70. The vast majority are people who came from Wuhan.

To date, about 99% of the nearly 6,000 cases are in China. Mr Ryan estimated the death rate of the new virus at 2%, but said the figure was very preliminary.

switzerland-who-china-outbreak WHO executives, from left, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) with Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, and Maria van Kerkhove, Head of the Outbreak Investigation Task Force, Source: AP/PA Images

With fluctuating numbers of cases and deaths, scientists are only able to produce a rough estimate of the fatality rate and it is likely many milder cases of the virus are being missed.

In comparison, the Sars virus killed about 10% of people who caught it.

Ryan noted there were several aspects of the new virus outbreak that are extremely worrying, citing the recent rapid spike in cases in China. He said that while scientists believe the outbreak was sparked by an animal virus, it is unclear if there are other factors driving the epidemic.

“Without understanding that, it’s very hard to put into context the current transmission dynamics,” he said.

Meanwhile, countries began evacuating their citizens from the Chinese city hardest-hit by the virus. Chartered planes carrying about 200 evacuees each arrived in Japan and the United States as other countries planned similar evacuations from the city of Wuhan, which authorities have shut down to try to contain the virus.

Evacuation 

A “small number” of Irish people are being evacuated from Wuhan in China as a result of the outbreak. 

The Department of Foreign Affairs today began advising Irish citizens against all non-essential travel to China. 

Since the outbreak began, more than 50 million people have been locked down in and around Wuhan, in a bid by authorities to stop the infection that has since spread to more than 15 countries.

Speaking to reporters today, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said there is a “small number of Irish citizens who are in the province that’s affected in China”. 

“We will make contact with them through our embassy. Some are happy to stay and a very small number want to leave. We’re putting arrangements in place, working with EU partners to facilitate that,” Coveney said.

Coveney added that “there is no evidence to suggest that any Irish citizen has contracted the virus”.

Irish citizens had initially been advised against visiting just Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in an area of around 8,500 kilometres squared. This is where the disease emerged in December. 

The advice was then extended to include the province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located. Now, the Department is advising against all non-essential travel to the entire of China. 

The Department of Foreign Affairs today noted that travel within the province of Hubei “has become tightly controlled and all tourists facilities have been closed”. 

“Under these circumstances, travellers are advised against visiting the province of Hubei,” the Department said. 

In relation to the remainder of mainland China, the Department said the situation “remains very fluid” and that “it is likely increasing containment measures will be deployed by the Chinese government”. 

china-beijing-novel-coronavirus-prevention-cn A staff member disinfects public fitness equipments at a community in Haidian District in Beijing Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

“In this environment, the advice of the Embassy of Ireland is to reconsider non-essential travel to and within China at this time, as citizens may be affected by increased containment measures, which can include a ban on movement within and between cities in China,” the Department said. 

People who may want to leave China soon are being asked to consider making plans to do so before any further restrictions may be imposed. 

Travellers and residents are also being warned to be aware of delays and checks when entering or leaving China, or larger cities within the country, and when travelling from China to other countries. 

“The risk of delay or cancellation of travel is particularly heightened if the person travelling exhibits symptoms of fever, respiratory illness, and coughing, and we would advise against travel to or within China under these circumstances,” the Department said.

The Department said it will continue to monitor the situation and to update travel advice. 

“As this is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation, we advise following the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control website,” it added. This can be found here

Embassy warning

kenya-china-outbreak Passengers arriving from a China Southern Airlines flight from Changsha in China are screened for the new type of coronavirus upon their arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta international airport in Nairobi, Kenya. Source: AP/PA Images

The Embassy of China in Ireland are warning people returning from China to keep close attention to their physical condition. 

Once fever, debilitation, dry cough, diarrhoea, dyspnea or any other symptoms are observed, they should timely consult the doctor and report to the Embassy. 

Some Chinese cultural and local delegations to Ireland have been postponed, the Embassy added. 

“The Embassy maintains close communication with the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department and the HSE on the epidemic prevention and control,” the Embassy said.

Earlier today, British Airways announced that it is halting all flights in and out of mainland China as a result of the virus. 

Further advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs in relation to travel to China can be found here

- With reporting from PA

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