Thailand has recorded its first human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus, after a taxi driver was apparently infected by a traveller, heightening concern over the virus’s potential to spread in the worst-hit country outside China.
The taxi driver was among five new patients confirmed on Friday, bringing the total number of cases in Thailand to 19.
The country is among the most popular holiday destinations for Chinese people celebrating the lunar new year, and officials have warned that an outbreak in its tourism hotspots is possible.
More than 25,000 people arrived in the country from Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, and other affected Chinese cities between 3 and 27 January, according to Reuters.
Most of the Chinese visitors are believed to have returned home, although on Friday afternoon China’s foreign ministry said it would send charter flights to Thailand and Malaysia to bring home residents of virus-affected regions who may have been left stranded after sweeping travel restrictions were introduced across China last week.
Tanarak Pipat, deputy director-general of the Department of Disease Control, said the taxi driver had not recently travelled to China, adding “…it is likely that he was infected (by) a sick traveller from China.”
The virus has infected almost 10,000 people globally in two months, a worrying sign of its spread that prompted the World Health Organization to declare the outbreak a global emergency on Thursday.
In other developments on Friday, the first cases were reported in the UK and Russia, the US state department advised against all travel to China, and Italy declared a state of emergency over the virus.
In China there have been 9,692 confirmed infections and 213 deaths. More than 50 million people have been placed under virtual quarantine, while foreign countries, companies and airlines have cut back severely on travel to China and quarantined those who recently passed through Wuhan.
Evacuations have also been stepped up: a plane carrying more than 100 British and other EU nationals trapped in Wuhan left for the UK after Chinese spouses and partners were given permission to travel. Germany said on Friday it was sending a military plane to China to evacuate more than 100 of its citizens. South Korea evacuated 367 of its citizens on Friday.
The coronavirus is believed to have a two-week incubation period, during which those infected can pass on the illness even if they show no symptoms such as fever and cough.
Since China informed the WHO about the virus in late December, at least 20 countries have reported cases, as scientists race to understand how exactly the virus is spreading and how severe it is.
Experts have said there is significant evidence the virus is spreading among people in China and the WHO noted in its emergency declaration on Thursday it was especially concerned that some cases abroad also involved human-to-human transmission. It defines an international emergency as an extraordinary event that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated global response.
An increase in infections in two cities flanking Wuhan is fuelling fears that new hotspots are emerging in a province where strict transport curbs have already brought most activity to a halt.
The central Chinese province of Hubei has been the site of almost 60% of infections, as well as more than 95% of deaths. But two of its cities, Huanggang and Xiaogan, with combined populations of more than 12 million, have racked up more than 11% of global infections and deaths.
As the coronavirus in these cities spreads faster than in Wuhan itself and other sites outside a lockdown zone, the first dismissal of a senior health official in Hubei has spurred authorities to push for more effective measures. “Medical supplies are in very short supply,” said the provincial governor, Wang Xiaodong. “Not only are there shortages in Wuhan and surrounding cities, but they are generally severely deficient in other parts of the province.”
Wuhan’s Communist party chief Ma Guoqiang said in a nationally televised interview on Friday that the impact of the coronavirus on the rest of China and the world “would have been less” if containment measures had been implemented sooner. “Right now I’m in a state of guilt, remorse and self-reproach,” he said.
Thai officials have stepped up measures at airports and other tourist areas, after criticism that the government had failed to act quickly to stop the virus and that tourism profits were being prioritised over public health.
Screening for people working in the tourism industry, as well as all passengers travelling from China, has been introduced. In Bangkok’s public transport system, and some of its big shopping malls, hand sanitiser is being handed out for free.
On Tuesday the public health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, told Sky News he expected the number of infections to rise, warning: “We are not able to stop the spread.”
The Italian measures will be in place for six months and will include an initial €5m (£4.2m) invested nationally in preventing and containing the potential spread of the virus. The state of emergency gives powers to local authorities and institutions to handle situations and ensure interventions that protect the population. The move by the Italian government came in response to the two confirmed cases and the WHO’s announcement of a global emergency.
The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill there during the 2002-03 outbreak of Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a cousin of the latest virus. Both are from the coronavirus family, which also includes those that can cause the common cold.
First published on The Guardian