Caixin
Jan 14, 2020 08:18 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Woman in Thailand First to Be Diagnosed With Mystery Virus Outside China

Thai health authorities said Monday that a 61-year-old Chinese national is the first person outside of China to be diagnosed with the mysterious virus.
Thai health authorities said Monday that a 61-year-old Chinese national is the first person outside of China to be diagnosed with the mysterious virus.
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A woman in Thailand has become the first person outside of China to be diagnosed with the mysterious virus at the center of an outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that has infected dozens of people and caused at least one death since December.

Thai health authorities said Monday that the woman is a 61-year-old Chinese national. She traveled to the Southeast Asian country from Wuhan and was hospitalized on Jan. 8, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement Monday. She is currently recovering, the WHO added, citing Thai officials.

Chinese health officials suspect the virus, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms, may have initially spread to humans at a seafood market in northwestern Wuhan, capital of Central China’s Hubei province. On Thursday, authorities said the pathogen is likely a new kind of coronavirus, the family that includes the deadly SARS and MERS viruses. However, officials do not believe the new virus is as serious as SARS or spreads as readily from person to person.

The Thailand case comes amid fears that the looming Lunar New Year travel season, in which hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country and internationally, may exacerbate the virus’ spread.

Countries in the region have been on high alert for the disease, with Thai authorities conducting stricter-than-usual checks on passengers from Wuhan entering the country at Chiang Mai, Phuket and other major airports since Jan. 3. A total of 16 individuals known to have had close contact with the female patient all tested negative for the virus.

Although suspected cases have also occurred in Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea and Singapore, no confirmed diagnoses have yet been made in any of them.

The eventuality that the virus would appear elsewhere “was not unexpected,” the WHO said, adding that China’s continuing investigation of the pathogen was “essential” in order to “identify the source of this outbreak and any animal reservoirs or intermediate hosts.”

On Saturday, Wuhan’s municipal health commission announced the first known death attributable to the disease. The 61-year-old man, who died Thursday, was a regular visitor to the seafood market at the heart of the investigation.

Wuhan had confirmed 41 cases of the disease as of Monday, the city’s health commission said in a statement (link in Chinese). In addition to the single fatality, six people were in a serious condition, while seven had already recovered enough to leave the hospital. The rest were in a stable condition.

No new pneumonia cases attributable to the virus occurred in Wuhan on Sunday, according to the statement.

Additionally, authorities in the city have also traced some 763 people thought to have been in close contact with the virus, 687 of whom are still under observation, the statement said. No new cases have so far been discovered among that group.

The fact that many patients reported symptoms after visiting the seafood market indicates that the virus may have a common source and could have passed to humans from animals.

That kind of transmission route is unsurprising given the previous emergence of the SARS virus in live animal markets, Vineet Menachery, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told Caixin Global in an email. “For China and Asia, the existence of live markets provides an exposure route less common in other parts of the world. This, combined with population density, provides more opportunities for the virus to jump to humans,” he said.

Tim Sheahan, an assistant professor in the epidemiology department at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, told Caixin Global in an email that the spate of illnesses “solidifies the paradigm of coronavirus emergence” following the SARS and MERS outbreaks in the last two decades.

There are currently no approved drugs for any human coronavirus, Sheahan added. “This outbreak really highlights a need for coronavirus antivirals, therapeutics, and vaccines as this will likely occur again in the future,” he said.

In 2002 and 2003, an epidemic of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in southern China infected thousands and led to 774 deaths worldwide. A similar disease, MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, sparked panic in China when it appeared in South Korea in 2015, but only one case — a South Korean citizen — was ever recorded in China.

Contact reporter Matthew Walsh (matthewwalsh@caixin.com)

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