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Commentary: Why the Wuhan virus situation could get worse soon

The Wuhan virus has been circulating longer than first thought and has a higher reproduction rate, says the Financial Times' Anjana Ahuja.

Commentary: Why the Wuhan virus situation could get worse soon

Hospitals in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus outbreak, are overwhelmed. (Photo: AFP/Hector RETAMAL)

LONDON: The world should be more anxious than it was a week ago.

According to research published on Friday (Jan 24), a new SARS-like coronavirus has been present in China since Dec 1, a full month before the alarm was raised.

More than 4,000 people have been diagnosed with the respiratory illness. As of Tuesday morning, at least 45 cases were outside China.

More than 100 people have already died.

MORE: Our coverage on the Wuhan virus and its developments

A traveler wearing a mask arrives on a direct flight from China at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Photo: Reuters)


Despite draconian quarantining, the virus, provisionally known as 2019-nCoV, is spreading. Several countries, including the UK, are considering evacuating nationals from the hot zone.

It is now time for the World Health Organization to call a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

The revised timeline on when the virus began circulating comes courtesy of two papers in The Lancet medical journal, which reveal other worrying details. One sets out the clinical data on the first 41 laboratory-confirmed patients.

Patient zero, who fell ill on Dec 1, had no link to the seafood market in Wuhan that is widely assumed to be the source of the outbreak. A further 13 of those 41 cases showed no link either. It is possible that the virus began circulating earlier than December.

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Other analyses separately suggest that containment is now a forlorn hope.

The “reproduction number” is thought to lie between two and four — meaning that, on average, each infected person passes the virus to between two and four others.

That is high: Seasonal flu has a reproduction rate of about 1.4.

The incubation period could be about a week, with infected individuals possibly being contagious while showing mild or no symptoms. 

Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College epidemiologist, estimated that 4,000 were infected by Jan 18. Jonathan Read, of Lancaster University, and colleagues provisionally calculate that the tally could exceed 190,000 by Feb 4.


A “grave situation” for China, as President Xi Jinping describes the epidemic, is a grave situation for the world.

A fifth of the global population is now potentially exposed to a highly transmissible, currently incurable and potentially fatal respiratory virus.

People wearing protective masks to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in Wuhan, wait next to their suitcases at the Beijing railway station. (Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP)

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, believes a PHEIC declaration should be considered.

“The emergency committee [of the WHO] should reconvene as a matter of urgency,” Mr Horton said, adding that he felt there were political sensitivities at play that have not dogged other epidemics, such as Ebola in west Africa.

Recent developments, such as a special committee set up by China’s ruling party, have also heightened rather than allayed his concerns. He says: “Not one [of the people on that committee] has any background in public health. That makes me very worried.”

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Mr Horton also fears the mass social unrest that may accompany prolonged quarantine with patchy information.

It is unclear whether the WHO knew in advance of China’s quarantine plans. The language emerging from its meetings has been painfully diplomatic, with its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus remarking only that he hoped the extreme measures were “both effective and short in their duration”.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said it was “right and appropriate” for China to control the first response. Antivirals were going into randomised trials on the ground, he said, and vaccines might become available within six months.

He acknowledged, though, that the social consequences of quarantining millions of people remained “uncharted territory”.

All factors considered, it is perverse to see the coronavirus outbreak as anything other than a PHEIC.

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Source: Financial Times/sl


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