Researchers investigating the cause of a mysterious pneumonia outbreak have discovered a new strain of coronavirus-- a species of viruses that can lead to fatal illnesses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), according to China state media and the World Health Organization (WHO). The first fatality was reported on January 10, 2020.
The outbreak was first confirmed on December 31, 2019, in Wuhan city, central China, which initially sparked fears of SARS resurgence but has since been ruled out.
According to the Wuhan Municipal Health, as of January 10, 2020, 41 cases of pneumonia with a new coronavirus infection were diagnosed, seven of which were severe cases. Moreover, the first person to die from the mysterious illness was reported, who was identified as a 61-year-old man.
Through tests on throat swabs and infected blood samples, "a total of 15 positive results of the new type of coronavirus had been detected," said lead scientist Xu Jianguo.
WHO also confirmed the preliminary discovery of the new coronavirus. "Further investigations are also required to determine the source, modes of transmission, [the] extent of infection and countermeasures implemented," said Gauden Galea, the WHO Representative to China.
Wuhan's health commission added that the infection broke out between December 12 and 29 in 2019, with some of the patients employed at a seafood market which has since been closed for disinfection.
The outbreak came just weeks prior to the country's busiest travel period when millions of people are out for Lunar New Year.
At a briefing, a Chinese transport ministry official said arrangements were made for "disinfection, monitoring, and prevention," focusing on areas with a large number of passengers such as cargo hubs and stations.
In addition, all planes have prepared emergency medical kits, said Wan Xiangdong, chief flight officer of China's Civil Aviation Administration.
"People with symptoms of pneumonia and reported travel history to Wuhan have been identified at international airports," Galea added.
Meanwhile, hospitals in Hong Kong have raised their alert level to "serious" and improved detection measures, including temperature checkpoints for inbound travelers.
According to authorities in the financial hub, 48 people have been sent to the hospital in the past days after showing flu-like illnesses after returning from Wuhan. However, none were confirmed to have gotten the mystery virus. As of Thursday, January 9, 25 of the patients were discharged.
Residents rushed to purchase face masks in fear of the outbreak. Moreover, authorities said inbound trains and flights are doing extra disinfection. Additional thermal imaging systems have been set up at the city airport, while hand-held infrared thermometers will be used to check high-speed rail passengers from the mainland.
China's center for disease control advised people who are traveling to Wuhan to wear masks and avoid contact with wild animals and people with illnesses.
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