Federal officials are closely monitoring an outbreak of a new coronavirus in China that has resulted in more than 200 infections and at least six deaths, according to a report by Reuters this morning. Other news outlets also put the mortality count at six.
The Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization is scheduled to meet to tomorrow to decide whether the outbreak constitutes an international public health emergency.
The outbreak is centered in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China, but exported cases have been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. This morning, Reuters reported that Taiwan had its first case of the infection. The infected person is a woman in her 50s had returned to the island after working in Wuhan. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is screening passengers on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan to the three main U.S. ports of entry and is updating state and local health departments and health care providers about the outbreak.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people and others circulating among animals, including camels, cats, and bats, according to the CDC. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve and infect people and then spread between people, as has been seen with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The new virus, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms, has been designated the “2019 novel coronavirus” or “2019-nCoV.”
The CDC says many patients in the Wuhan outbreak have reportedly been linked to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread. However, a growing number of patients reportedly have not had exposure to animal markets, suggesting person-to-person spread is occurring. Cases outside China have all occurred in travelers from Wuhan.
Outbreaks of novel virus infections among people are always a public health concern, the CDC says. The risk from these outbreaks depends on characteristics of the virus, including whether and how well it spreads between people, the severity of resulting illness, and the medical or other measures available to control the impact of the virus (for example, vaccine or treatment medications).
While much remains unknown, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is deemed to be low at this time, the CDC says. Nevertheless, the agency is taking proactive preparedness precautions.