KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 9 — The mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, could be caused by a newly emerging member of the family viruses that caused the deadly SARS and MERS outbreaks, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
Reuters quoted the public health agency of the United Nations (UN) as saying that a new “coronavirus” was a possibility.
“The initial information about the cases of pneumonia in Wuhan…pointed to a coronavirus as a possible pathogen causing this cluster,” the WHO said in a statement on Wednesday.
However, the WHO reportedly said that it needs more comprehensive information to confirm what type of pathogen is causing the mysterious infections in Wuhan — more than 1,000km from Beijing — which has affected at least 59 people so far.
The Reuters report added that since testing by Chinese authorities had eliminated the SARS and MERS coronaviruses as possible causes, as well as flu, bird flu, adenovirus and other common respiratory pathogens, “a novel coronavirus could not be ruled out”.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, human coronaviruses most commonly spread from an infected person to others through coughing, sneezing, touching or shaking hands.
It can cause infections ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — which infected over 8,000 people and killed almost 800 in 2003 worldwide– and the more severe Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
The Wuhan Municipal Health Authority recently said there had been 59 cases of the mysterious pneumonia, seven of which were in critical condition.
Citing Chinese authorities, meanwhile, the WHO said it was informed that the virus behind the Wuhan cases does not appear to pass easily from person to person, a view which has been panned by medical experts in the US.
US health news portal STATnews quoted coronavirus expert Matthew Frieman from the University of Maryland School of Medicine as saying that the number of cases reported makes it seem unlikely that animal-to-human transmission is the only way the virus is being spread.
The STATnews report also said experts found it as unsurprising to note that a coronavirus may be responsible for the outbreak, and called on China to share more information, including on a genetic sequence, so that health facilities outside China know what to look for when faced with a pneumonia case with a recent travel history to Wuhan.
“It really behooves them to at least provide enough information to allow the global community to be ready to do testing,” STATnews reported Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert at the University of North Caroline, as saying yesterday.
“Otherwise you’re just doing screening for fever — in the middle of respiratory disease season? Financial nightmare.”
Malaysia has joined several countries in the region in screening travelers at airports for fever, following in the footsteps of Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, who have been doing so following the Wuhan outbreak, with similar efforts being carried out at government clinics and hospitals nationwide.
No pneumonia cases have been recorded in Malaysia, according to the Ministry of Health (MOH), though its Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre (CPRC) is still on the ball.