A mystery respiratory virus which emerged in China at the beginning of the year has been found in Thailand, raising fears that the disease is not being contained. The first fatality has also been reported.
The World Health Organization confirmed that a traveller from China has been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan in central China earlier this month.
The patient was hospitalised and is now recovering, according to Thai officials.
"The possibility of cases being identified in other countries was not unexpected and reinforces why WHO calls for ongoing active monitoring and preparedness in other countries," a WHO spokesperson said.
The case comes as a 61-year-old man in Wuhan became the first person to die of the new virus, while seven more remain in a critical condition after they contracted the illness linked to a seafood market.
News that Chinese authorities discovered a novel virus has already raised concerns internationally, with some fearing a repeat of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that emerged in China in 2002.
The SARS coronavirus spread worldwide, infecting 8,000 people and killing almost 800 before it was contained.
But while there is so far no sign that the new coronavirus can spread between people - and no health workers have been infected - public health experts worldwide remain on high alert.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has warned that while the risk of transmission into Europe is “low”, it “cannot be excluded” because EU airports have direct and indirect flights to Wuhan.
Countries in south Asia, including Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, have also introduced health screening procedures for passengers arriving from the city.
In Bangkok local media reported that five people have already been quarantined after displaying symptoms similar to patients in Wuhan. And the Hong Kong Hospital Authority has said that seven patients who visited Wuhan in the last fortnight have been admitted to hospital for monitoring after developing fever, pneumonia or respiratory symptoms.
But the WHO's announcement that the novel coronavirus has reached Thailand is the first confirmation that the illness has spread internationally.
As a result the organisation's director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he will consult emergency committee members about whether a crisis meeting should meet.
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, told The Telegraph that it was not yet clear how a case emerged in Thailand.
"Until we know the likely source of their infection it’s difficult to say whether - and which - surveillance and monitoring measures have broken down. But it would be more worrying if it was a completely new source of the virus which was not linked [to Wuhan]," he said.
Experts are also concerned about the timing of the outbreak. In just a few weeks millions of people will be travelling across the country and region to celebrate the Spring Festival, China’s biggest national holiday, which begins on January 25. Government estimates suggest that some three billion trips will be made.
But the WHO has praised Chinese authorities for their quick identification of the new coronavirus. This is in contrast to 2002, when the country was accused of trying to cover up the SARS outbreak - with deadly consequences.
Over the weekend, Chinese authorities posted the genetic sequence of the new virus online - a move welcomed by experts after criticism last week that they were slow to share details.
Professor David Heymann, an infectious diseases expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, underlined the importance of sharing information.
"When a case of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) first came to the UK in 2012 the genetic sequence of the virus had been put on the web a month earlier so doctors were able to confirm that this was the same sequence," he said.
"It’s very important that the sequence is shared not only for confirming cases but also for developing diagnostic tests."
Coronaviruses live in animals, but occasionally make the jump to humans. Seven of these viruses have now been found in humans including the new pneumonia, SARS and MERS, which first emerged in 2012 and has infected around 2,500 people, 800 of whom have died.
While SARS was controlled within a year MERS has proved more tenacious, with nearly 200 cases reported in Saudi Arabia alone in 2019.
The WHO said that 41 cases caused by the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Wuhan and at least two people have been discharged from hospital. The man who died was a “patient with other underlying health conditions”, including abdominal tumors and chronic liver disease.
The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said that 739 people who had been in close contact with patients were under medical surveillance, including 419 health workers.
All the cases developed between mid and late December - no new cases have been reported since 3rd January - and are associated with the Huanan seafood market, which has since been closed and disinfected.
The man who died appears to have been a regular customer at the market, which trades in birds, pheasants, rabbits and snakes as well as seafood.
Public health experts have stressed that it is vital to track down which animal the infection originated in to fully understand and contain the coronavirus.
“The biggest thing to ascertain is how transmissible the virus is between humans,” said Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University. “This will affect how easily the virus can be contained.”
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