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[MANILA] The Chinese city of Wuhan, identified as the ground zero of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCov),  and seven neighbouring cities have been put on lockdown as the virus continued to spread, with 25 confirmed deaths from the infection.  
 
According to initial reports, the novel coronavirus, which emerged in December, is said to have originated from a market in Wuhan. It causes flu-like symptoms but can progress to a more severe form. By Friday morning (24 January), cases in China rose to 830 from 634 people a day before, according to China’s National Health Commission. Confirmed cases of coronavirus in Japan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and the US and unconfirmed cases in the Philippines and Mexico showed the rapid spread of the virus. There is evidence of human-to-human transmission and fears that it could mutate into deadlier forms. 

“I think it is always best to be on the safe side when dealing with an unknown virus”

Edsel Salvaña, National Institutes of Health, University of the Philippines Manila

Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and home to over 11 million people, had already earlier been quarantined, with travel in and out of the city suspended, and entertainment venues like cinemas and cafes shut. Similar measures have been imposed Thursday on the cities of Huanggang and Ezhou with a combined 9 million people. Travel restrictions were also placed on smaller cities of Chibi, Lichuan, Quianjiang, Xiantao and Zhijiang on Friday.
 
Several countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and the US have begun screening travellers, particularly those coming in from China, for signs of fever, cough and flu-like symptoms. 
 
“Given travel patterns and increased testing, more cases of 2019-nCov should be expected in other parts of China and possibly other countries in coming days,” a WHO spokesperson says in a statement to SciDev.Net.
 
While there have been criticisms over the “extreme” handling of the Chinese government, Edsel Salvaña, director, Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, National Institutes of Health, University of the Philippines Manila, believes that the action is warranted. “I think it is always best to be on the safe side when dealing with an unknown virus.
 
“There is always a danger [of an outbreak] especially if it is a respiratory virus and there is no immunity to it because it is a new pathogen,” Salvaña says.
 
Allegations that the government of China — which tightly regulates the press — is covering up the actual number of cases appeared prompted by the 2002—2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that killed nearly 800 people globally and which Beijing was slow in admitting.  
 
A study released earlier this month by scientists at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis,  Imperial College London, concluded that there were  “substantially more cases of moderate or severe respiratory illness than currently reported”. They estimated that there could be as many as 4,000 people sick with the novel coronavirus.
 
While China has shared the genetic sequencing of 2019-nCov much remains unknown information about the virus. “We are still in the very early stages of understanding this disease and there is still a lot we don’t know,” says the statement from the WHO spokesperson. “We will continue to monitor information on both current and new cases, as this is critical to enhancing our understanding of the severity of the illness,” the statement reads.
 
Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US and currently chief of Resolve to Save Lives, says: “There are still many unknowns with the newly discovered coronavirus. It can cause something as benign as the common cold as also something as deadly as SARS. What we don’t know is where the novel coronavirus fits on that spectrum.”
 
“While we wait to learn more, follow cold and flu prevention measures: wash your hands often, cover your mouth (when coughing), and avoid travel and crowds if you’re sick,” Frieden advises by way of caution.
 
Pre-existing health conditions may make individuals more susceptible to a severe form of the novel coronavirus, adds the WHO spokesperson. “People with existing chronic conditions appear to have increased vulnerability to more severe illness.”  
 
Hypertension, cardiovascular problems, respiratory and liver issues and diabetes can exacerbate the effects of the coronavirus. The elderly may also be more susceptible to a more severe form of the disease.  
 
On the 23 January meeting with the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the body determined that it is too early to declare of a global health emergency, given the current circumstances. “Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency”, said Ghebreyesus.
 
However, the committee agreed on the urgency of the issue and committed to continually monitor the coronavirus. The body also provided recommendations to all countries, including taking measures such as active surveillance, early detection, and containment.
 
“The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence,” said Ghebreyesus previously said in a statement.

Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Trust, London, warned that more cases may surface with the advent of the Lunar New Year celebrations. “We know there is more to come from this outbreak, and with travel being a huge part of the fast approaching Chinese New Year, it is right that concern levels are at the highest level.”
 
A state-run news outlet, however, announced that the Chinese government is set to cancel the planned Lunar New Year celebrations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.