U.S. Markets close in 24 mins

WHO refuses to rule out human-to-human spread in China's mystery virus outbreak

Sarah Newey
Security guards stand in front of the closed Huanan wholesale seafood market, where the outbreak is thought to have originated - AFP

The mystery respiratory virus that has hit a city in central China could spark a wider outbreak, with the potential for “limited” transmission between humans, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned. 

So far 41 people in China have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus – which causes a fever, breathing difficulties and pneumonia – since it was first detected at the start of the month, including a 61-year-old man who died last week.

While clear information about the mysterious virus remains hazy, the WHO said on Tuesday that transmission between humans has not been ruled out. 

“From the information that we have it is possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission, potentially among families, but it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of WHO's emerging diseases unit. 

But there remains no evidence that health workers – usually the most vulnerable in disease outbreaks – have been infected with the new virus, which is the seventh coronavirus to be detected in humans. While most cause mild flu-like symptoms, two strains are much more severe.

Dr Van Kerkhove added that the WHO has updated infection control guidance for hospitals across the world after a case was detected in Thailand. 

A woman from Wuhan who flew to Bangkok was quarantined after Thai officials confirmed she was infected with the coronavirus.  

While the woman has since recovered the case has raised some questions about why authorities - who are tracking 763 people who may have come into contact with the virus, including 419 health workers - did not identify her before she travelled.

“This sounds like somebody who has slipped through the net,” said Jimmy Whitworth, professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “If one person has, have others? So that’s a slight worry.

“But it doesn’t seem to be a virus that’s rapidly and easily transmitted in the human population, though this does raise the stakes slightly.

“With Chinese new year and millions of people travelling, even with limited transmission there’s some chance that this could transmit further,” Prof Whitworth added. 

News that Chinese authorities discovered a novel virus has already raised concerns internationally, with some fearing a repeat of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that emerged in China in 2002.

The SARS coronavirus spread worldwide, infecting 8,000 people and killing almost 800 before it was contained.

But while China was then accused of covering up the epidemic, the WHO has this time praised the country’s rapid identification of the new coronavirus and the decision to share the virus’ genetic sequence.

Nonetheless, the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) told The Telegraph that many questions remain unanswered. 

“It’s unfortunate that we still have only limited information from Wuhan at this stage,” Dr Cornelia Adlhoch, surveillance expert at ECDC said. “We have no information about the 41 cases… which is basic information required to assess an outbreak.” 

But Dr Aldhoch added that the coronavirus was not currently a cause for panic. 

The new virus is thought to have originated in December in a seafood market in Wuhan – a city home to some 11 million people in central China – where the majority of infected patients were vendors or customers. 

But while coronaviruses are known for their ability to jump from animals to humans, the exact source of the outbreak is yet to be determined. 

“There's been no real information about what the likely source of the virus in the market is,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He added that this was a greater concern than “limited person to person transmission.”

“Until we understand which animal the coronavirus came from, we won’t understand if this outbreak is likely to continue. We need to shut off the source of the outbreak.”

 Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security