WHO ponders raising red alert over SARS-like virus

Wednesday January 22 2020

People wearing protective masks arrive at Beijing railway station to head home for the Lunar New Year on January 21, 2020. A SARS-like virus has spread from China to three other Asian countries. PHOTO | AFP


As a new SARS-like virus lurks in China, the World Health Organization (WHO) is considering declaring an international public health emergency over the outbreak.

The coronavirus has put the world on high alert with countries increasing fever checks at airports amid fears of a bigger outbreak.

China has confirmed human-to-human transmission in the outbreak of the SARS-like virus as the number of cases soared and authorities Tuesday said a fourth person had died.

Coronavirus, which has spread to three other Asian countries and infected more than 200 people in China, has caused alarm because of its genetic similarities to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003. The discovery of human-to-human transmission comes as more than 400 million people are expected to travel domestically and internationally this week to celebrate the Lunar New Year with relatives.

Enhanced screening measures including fever checks have been set up at airports in Australia, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and the United States, with particular attention on arrivals from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Health authorities there, where a seafood market has been identified as the centre of the outbreak, said Tuesday that an 89-year-old man became the fourth person to die from the virus and that 15 medical staff had been infected. A second case was also confirmed in Shanghai on Tuesday, while five people have been diagnosed with the illness in Beijing.


The virus has also reached Japan, Thailand and South Korea, with four people hospitalised after visiting Wuhan.

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses common among animals. In rare cases, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reports, these viruses can become zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from animals to humans. These viruses are also classified under the contagious viral respiratory disease known as SARS.

Like many new and troubling viruses (Ebola and flu) that have originated in animal hosts, coronavirus has never been encountered before and is suspected to have come from animals, or possibly seafood. Asian countries have ramped up measures to block the spread of the new virus.

“People’s lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed,” said China’s President Xi Jinping, weighing in on the matter for the first time.

The Chinese government announced Tuesday it was classifying the outbreak in the same category as SARS, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the disease and the potential to implement quarantine measures on travel. 

President Xi said the virus must be “resolutely contained” and stressed that information must be released “in a timely manner”, in his first public comments on the outbreak on Monday.

The WHO said a key emergency committee would meet today to determine whether to declare an international public health emergency. The agency has only used the rare label a handful of times, including during the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009 and the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016.