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Outbreak of SARS-like virus widens with first case in Japan

Cases in Japan and Thailand reported this week suggest it may be spreading more widely in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people.

By: Bloomberg | Published: January 16, 2020 9:00:48 am
wuhan virus, china penumonia, china coronavirus, china wuhan virus, japan wuhan virus, SARS The man in his 30s, who lives south of Tokyo, spent time with an infected person in Wuhan, Japanese health officials said Thursday.

A man who had traveled to Japan after visiting the central Chinese city of Wuhan was infected with a new pneumonia-causing virus, widening the spread of the SARS-like germ first reported in China less than three weeks ago.

The man in his 30s, who lives south of Tokyo, spent time with an infected person in Wuhan, Japanese health officials said Thursday. He developed a fever on Jan. 3 before returning to Japan on Jan. 6, according to a statement. He was hospitalized with pneumonia on Jan. 10 and discharged with a mild cough five days later.

Like a case reported Monday in a Chinese traveler to Thailand, the man hadn’t visited the wholesale seafood market in Wuhan implicated in the outbreak, which has hospitalized dozens of people, killing one. The novel coronavirus, thought to be the source of the infections, has captured international attention because of similarities with the one that sparked Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, 17 years ago.

There’s no evidence the so-called 2019-nCoV virus spreads from person to person and it’s difficult to imagine a major increase in infections, Hiroshi Umeda, an official with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, told reporters in Tokyo. That’s unlike SARS, which killed almost 800 people.

Still, cases in Japan and Thailand reported this week suggest it may be spreading more widely in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people.

“Cases like the ones who traveled to Thailand and Japan after being exposed in Wuhan are not unexpected,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said in an email. “But public health officials are still laser-focused on whether any of the cases residing in China or now somewhere else in the world will turn out to be ‘super shedders’ and potentially infect many contacts.”

No new related pneumonia cases have been detected in China since Jan. 3. Genetic studies of virus material collected from patients indicated that 41 people in central China had been infected with the 2019-nCoV virus, excluding the two cases reported in Thailand and Japan.

Doctors in Japan used genetic sequencing analysis to confirm the case.

“We really are seeing the power of advanced rapid diagnostics at work here, which is super cool,” said James M. Wilson, a pediatrician who has helped monitor health security threats for 25 years.

Bats, Marmots

The outbreak is linked to a wholesale seafood market in Wuhan that also sold live animals such as poultry, bats, and marmots, along with wildlife parts. That’s prompted concern that the infectious respiratory pathogen has emerged from an as-yet unidentified animal reservoir.

Since the patient in Japan didn’t visit the seafood market in Wuhan, it’s possible he was infected via another source. Health officials said they have no details of the infected person with whom the man had spent time in Wuhan.

So far, no infections among health-care workers have been reported, and there is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission, the World Health Organization has said. Still, limited human-to-human transmission of the virus can’t be ruled out, Chui Tak-yi, Hong Kong’s Under Secretary for Food and Health, said Wednesday.

Shares of Japanese makers of masks and other health-care-related products rose after the health ministry confirmed the news, reported earlier by the Sankei newspaper. Azearth Corp., which makes protective gear, jumped as much as 20%, while Koken Ltd. led a surge in mask-makers, climbing as much as 19%.

Bangkok Patient

On Monday, Thai authorities reported that a woman living in Wuhan traveled with a tour group to Bangkok on Jan. 8 — three days after experiencing fever, chills, sore throat and a headache — and was hospitalized on her arrival.

Lab studies confirmed she was infected with the 2019-nCoV virus, making her the first case outside China. The traveler was a regular visitor to a fresh produce market in Wuhan, but hadn’t visited the one linked to most of the other cases.

That’s raised the possibility that the pathogen is lurking more widely in the city — a worrying prospect ahead of the Lunar New Year, celebrated on Jan. 25 this year, which spurs frenzied grocery shopping, including sometimes exotic foods.

SARS Similarity

The 2019-nCoV virus is at least 70% similar in its genetic makeup to the SARS virus, a 12-person multinational team of researchers said in a report prepared Monday for the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The Wuhan virus “appears clinically milder” in terms of severity, fatality rate and transmissibility than cases of SARS and an infection caused by a related virus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, the researchers said.

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