Australia starts screening for new virus as infections rise

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January 21, 2020
Virus China

Australia has become the latest country to start screening for a mysterious SARS-like disease as Chinese officials confirmed it can be passed from humans to humans.

The new coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, causes a kind of pneumonia and has struck at hundreds of people in Asia after first being detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The official estimate so far has been 220 cases but some experts believe the actual number is far higher.

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Most of these have been in China, where the virus has spread beyond Wuhan to other major cities,  but there have been isolated cases in Thailand, Japan and South Korea involving people who had visited Wuhan.

The virus is related to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that rocked the airline industry in the early 2000s but does not appear to be as deadly and only six people have reportedly died so far.

Three airports in the US with flights to Wuhan — San Francisco, Los Angeles and JFK New York — are screening passengers for the virus.

An additional 100 healthcare workers have been deployed to the airports and passengers arriving from Wuhan may have their temperature taken and be required to fill out a form.

Airports in Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea the Philippines and Indonesia have all stepped up screening with some boosting thermal imaging used in previous virus scares.

Australia’s chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, said Tuesday the risk to the nation was low but it was impossible to prevent it from entering.

There have been no confirmed cases of the disease in Australia, although a Brisbane man who recently returned from Wuhan is being screened after developing a respiratory illness.

He announced that stricter screening measures would apply to the three flights per week arriving at Sydney Airport from Wuhan and they would now be met by border security and biosecurity staff as well as NSW Health officials.

“We’re doing some careful modeling to see if there are any other flights from China that have a high proportion of Wuhan-origin passengers, and we may consider expanding that too,” the ABC quoted him as saying.

“But we have to do the analysis to find out where they come from, because there are apparently 160 flights from China a week.”

China has declared curbing the virus a priority but it faces the imminent start of Lunar New Year, a time when millions of Chinese travel that offers an ideal opportunity for the disease to spread.

Wuhan is a city of 11 million people and has non-stop flights to more than 100 destinations in 20 countries, according to website FlightConnections, with China Southern, China Eastern and Air China the top three operators.