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January 21, 2020

The new coronavirus is spreading fast among humans. Here's how US and other agencies are responding.

Daily Briefing

    The Chinese government on Monday confirmed the human-to-human transmission of a new coronavirus, following a steep increase in the number of reported cases.

    Details on the virus

    Reports of the infection in people in China's Wuhan province first broke in early December 2019. The origin of the outbreak has been connected to a now-closed large live seafood market that sold exotic animals, too, leading experts to believe the disease infected humans through exposure to animals.

    According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of the disease are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients have also reported difficulty breathing, according to WHO.

    Chinese state media earlier this month announced that the cause of the illness "is believed to be a new type of coronavirus," and said "more scientific research is needed for further understanding."

    "Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that range from the common cold to SARS," WHO said in a statement. "Some cause less-severe disease, some more severe. Some transmit easily from person to person, while others don't."

    Number of cases climb

    Zhong Nanshan, an expert with China's National Health Commission who is investigating virus, told state media Monday that the number of people infected with the new coronavirus was "climbing."  On Tuesday, China's National Health Commission announced 291 confirmed cases of the viruses. That day, 77 new cases were reported.

    The virus also has spread to other countries, with confirmed cases in two patients in Thailand and one patient in Korea and one patient in Japan. All of those patient had travelled from the Wuhan area. No cases have been reported in the United States.

    The number of deaths tied to the virus rose to six on Tuesday after the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission confirmed the deaths of a 66-year-old man and a 48-year-old woman on Monday.

    Chinese health authorities confirm human-to-human transmission

    Chinese health authorities have now confirmed the human-to-human transmission of the virus.

    Chinese authorities in earlier statements had rated the virus' risk of human-to-human transmission as relatively low. However, the number of cases across China, including among people who have not visited Wuhan, suggest the virus can be transmitted from one person to another. Authorities have said one patient is believed to have infected up to 14 health professionals at one hospital, suggesting the virus might be spread more easily than previously thought, CNN reports.

    One reason confirmed cases have increased is because of the availability of a diagnostic test for the virus, the Wall Street Journal reports. That means cases that would have previously gone unnoticed are now being reported. U.S. health officials last week said they expect more cases of the virus will be diagnosed in China and other countries as testing expands.

    U.K. researchers have estimated the number of infections in Wuhan are being grossly underestimated, with the actual number of cases closer to 1,700 based on the spread of the virus to other cities and countries in a short timeframe.

    Chinese officials are taking several steps to contain the spread of the virus. For example, Wuhan on Tuesday announced the city is canceling upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations, banning tour agencies from taking people out of Wuhan, and increasing the number of thermal monitors and screening areas for the virus in public areas. Traffic police also have been conducting random spot checks to ensure cars entering and exiting the city are not transporting wild animals or live birds.

    Health agencies respond

    Across Asia and United States, airports have begun to screen incoming passengers from Wuhan and other regions for the virus. CDC and Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection have been screening people traveling from Wuhan who have fevers, coughs, or difficulty breathing.

    Meanwhile, NIH is working on a vaccine for the virus, though it will likely take at least a few months before the vaccine enters the first phase of clinical trials and more than a year before it becomes available, CNN reports. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said scientists in Texas, New York, and China are working on the vaccine.

    WHO on Monday announced that it would convene an emergency meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of "international concern." If the outbreak is declared a public health emergency, the WHO director-general would have the authority to issue recommendations to other countries to not close their borders or restrict trade with countries affected by the outbreak because such measures would discourage countries from providing accurate information about outbreaks.

    Some observers have expressed concerns about the measures to contain the virus coming too late as hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel across the country and overseas in the coming days for the Lunar New Year, which could potentially increase the number of cases.

    Brendan Murphy, Australia's chief medical officer, noted the difficulty of preventing the spread of a virus with a short incubation period like this one. Murphy said, "You cannot absolutely prevent entry into the country of a disease like this. The incubation period is probably a week. It's about identifying those with a high risk and making sure people with a high risk know about it and know how to get medical attention" (Griffiths/Gan, CNN, 1/21; Deng/Cheng, Wall Street Journal, 1/20; Fifield, Washington Post, 1/21; Wang/Moritsugu, Associated Press, 1/21; Branswell, STAT News, 1/20; Branswell, STAT News, 1/19; Branswell, STAT News, 1/8).

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