BEIJING – A preliminary investigation into viral pneumonia illnesses making dozens of people in and around China sick has identified the possible cause as a new type of coronavirus, state media said Thursday.
Chinese health authorities did not immediately confirm the report from state broadcaster CCTV.
Coronaviruses are spread through coughing, sneezing or by touching an infected person. Some cause the common cold while others can lead to more severe respiratory diseases, such as SARS and MERS. Such viruses are common in people, but more exotic versions from bats, camels and other animals have caused severe illness.
The novel coronavirus is different from those that have previously been identified, CCTV said. Health authorities ruled out SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome as possible causes over the weekend.
As of Sunday, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said 59 people in the central Chinese city were being treated for respiratory illness. Seven were in critical condition while the rest were stable.
Eight patients were discharged Wednesday, the Xinhua state news agency reported. They had not exhibited any pneumonia symptoms for several days.
Laboratory experts as of Wednesday evening had found the novel coronavirus in 15 of the 59 cases, CCTV said, adding that more research must be done before a conclusion is reached.
Possible cases of the same illness have been reported in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan involving recent travelers to Wuhan.
No obvious evidence of human-to-human transmission has been found so far, according to the commission’s statement Sunday.
Since the end of 2019, Hong Kong public hospitals have reported 38 patients showing fever, respiratory infection or pneumonia symptoms after recent visits to Wuhan. Twenty-one of those patients have since been discharged, Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said Wednesday.
No serious cases have been found to be related to those in Wuhan, said Hong Kong’s health chief, Sophia Chan.
None of the Hong Kong patients had visited the seafood market in Wuhan where some of the mainland Chinese patients operated businesses. The South China Seafood City food market will be suspended and investigated, Wuhan’s health commission said.
A Chinese woman who works for a South Korean company was diagnosed Tuesday with pneumonia, according to the Korea Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said. Meanwhile, Taiwan authorities said Wednesday that they were quarantining a patient who fell ill with flu symptoms Jan. 6, more than two weeks after the individual returned from a trip to Wuhan.
The new illnesses had raised fears of a recurrence of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The disease first infected people in southern China in late 2002 and spread to more than two dozen countries. More than 8,000 people became ill and nearly 800 died, but no cases have been reported since 2004.
Another coronavirus causes MERS, of which an outbreak started in Jordan and Saudi Arabia in 2012 and spread to about two dozen other countries. About 2,500 lab-confirmed cases have been reported, including more than 800 deaths, with cases continuing to be seen in recent years.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a health alert advising physicians who treat patients with a pneumonia-like illness to consider a possible link to the Chinese outbreak, wear a mask and take other precautions in treating patients who recently traveled to Wuhan.
The CDC this week also advised U.S. travelers going to Wuhan to avoid animals and sick people and wash their hands often.
The outbreak comes just a few weeks before China’s busiest annual travel period, when millions of people take buses, trains and planes for the Lunar New Year.
China’s Ministry of Transport has “made arrangements for disinfection, monitoring and prevention” focusing on areas with large numbers of passengers, including stations and cargo hubs, the ministry’s chief engineer, Wang Yang, said at an annual media briefing Thursday.
The country’s civil aviation authority and national railway said at the briefing they had not received any reports of affected patients taking flights or trains, and that they were closely watching the situation.
Wan Xiangdong, chief flight officer of China’s Civil Aviation Administration, said all planes are equipped with emergency medical kits.
In Hong Kong, hospitals have raised their alert level to “serious” and stepped up detection measures including temperature checkpoints for inbound travelers.
City residents worried about the outbreak have rushed to buy face masks, with many selling out.
Inbound trains and flights from the mainland are undergoing additional cleaning and disinfection, Hong Kong transport authorities said.
Additional thermal imaging systems have been set up at the city’s airport, while inbound high-speed rail passengers from the mainland face checks by hand-held infrared thermometers.
The upcoming holiday has also prompted concerns in Taiwan, where top officials urged the island’s health and welfare ministry to strengthen quarantine controls at airports and plan accordingly.