China confirms human-to-human transmission of new coronavirus while WHO convenes emergency meeting

Society & Culture

The Wuhan coronavirus is transmissible between humans, Chinese health authorities announced on Monday.

“It has been confirmed that two people in Guangdong province were infected through human-to-human transmission,” Zhōng Nánshān 钟南山 of China’s National Health Commission said in an interview on state-run television. The two patients apparently had not been to Wuhan, where the virus originated (likely from wild animals, according to public health experts), but were infected by family members returning from the city.

Late Sunday, the virus claimed a fourth victim in Wuhan, while two more died on Tuesday. “All of the deceased had underlying health conditions and were between 48 and 89 years old,” Sixth Tone notes. At the time of this writing, there have been 224 cases, a number that is increasing daily. There are serious concerns of a spike during the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday that begins Saturday, when three billion trips are expected to be made over the course of the week.

Wuhan tour groups are currently banned from making outbound trips, and cars entering and leaving the city will be subject to random screenings, Chinese media reported on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Australia and the Philippines both have their first cases of the virus: in Australia, it was a Brisbane man who recently returned from Wuhan, and in the Philippines, a five-year-old from Wuhan was admitted to a Cebu hospital after testing positive.

The Wuhan strain is the seventh identified strain of the coronavirus, a family of viruses that also includes a strain which caused an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China’s Guangdong province in November 2002. SARS killed nearly 800 people worldwide, mostly in China and Hong Kong. The Chinese government initially discouraged reporting about the outbreak and didn’t notify the World Health Organization (WHO) until February 2003.

Chinese authorities at least might not make that mistake this time around. This from the South China Morning Post:

Beijing on Tuesday warned cadres not to cover up the spread of a mysterious new coronavirus that started in central China, saying anyone who withheld information would face severe punishment and be “nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”

Chang An Jian, the official social media account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission – Beijing’s top political body responsible for law and order – ran a commentary on Tuesday telling cadres not to forget the painful lessons of Sars and to ensure timely reporting of the current situation.

Another excerpt from the commentary, which has since been deleted but was originally posted here (in Chinese) with the title “As the pneumonia epidemic situation becomes tumultuous, it can only be wiped out if it is exposed to the sunshine” (肺炎疫情来势汹汹,只有曝光在“阳光”下,才能杀死它!fèiyán yìqíng láishì xiōngxiōng, zhǐyǒu pùguāng zài “yángguāng” xià, cáinéng shā sǐ tā):

Anyone who puts the face of politicians before the interests of the people will be the sinner of a millennium to the party and the people…Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of [virus] cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.

On Monday, President Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 instructed “resolute efforts” — as paraphrased by Xinhua — to control the contagion.

The prevention and control work is crucial at the moment due to the large passenger flows during the Spring Festival holiday, Xi said.

The Party committees and governments at all levels must put people’s safety and health as the top priority and take effective measures to curb the spread of the virus, he said.

Xi ordered all-out efforts to treat patients, identify the causes of the virus infection and spread at an earlier date, strengthen monitoring and standardize treatment procedures.

Xi spoke of the need for the timely release of information and the deepening of international cooperation.

He also stressed the necessity of informing the public of relevant policies to safeguard social stability and ensure people have a peaceful and auspicious Chinese New Year festival.

Doubling down, Xinhua also quoted Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强: “All prevention and control measures needed must be duly delivered, and inter-agency efforts must be enhanced to ensure the earliest possible detection, reporting, quarantine and treatment of the disease, and to keep the fatality rate at the minimal possible level. Precautions in hospitals should be strengthened.”

In a bit of optimistic news, the Financial Times’s Tom Hancock points out that since the SARS outbreak, “local government spending on healthcare grew from Rmb67 billion in 2003 to Rmb1.5 trillion in 2018” (from $9.7 billion to $217 billion).

The World Health Organization will hold an emergency committee meeting on Wednesday to determine whether to declare an international public health emergency. “The agency has only used the rare label a handful of times, including during the H1N1 — or swine flu — pandemic of 2009 and the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016,” according to AFP. China is one of several countries that will attend, and representatives will share what they know, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gěng Shuǎng 耿爽 said on Tuesday.

There are no vaccines or drugs that target the Wuhan coronavirus, though symptoms can be treated. For further reading, consult this explainer from the New York Times and this WHO primer, which includes tips for prevention.