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

Paitent tested positive for the novel coronavirus linked to the outbreak in Wuhan. (Twitter pic/dr_foda)

TOKYO: A man who had travelled 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 hospitalised with pneumonia on Jan 10 and discharged with a mild cough five days later.

Like a case reported Monday in a Chinese traveller to Thailand, the man hadn’t visited the wholesale seafood market in Wuhan implicated in the outbreak, which has hospitalised 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, Labour 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, and will continue to expand its geographic reach while scientists search for the source.

Super shedders

“Cases like the ones who travelled to Thailand and Japan after being exposed in Wuhan are not unexpected,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Centre 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, authorities there said.

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 Organisation said.

Many unknowns

“The fact that some cases do not seem to be linked with the Huanan seafood market means we cannot exclude the possibility of limited human-to-human transmission,” said Olivia Lawe-Davies, a spokeswoman for the WHO’s regional office in Manila, in an email Thursday.

“We are still in the early stages of understanding this new virus, where it came from, and how it affects people,” she said.

“There are still many unknowns, and the situation may continue to evolve.”

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

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

Lab studies confirmed she was infected with the 2019-nCoV virus, making her the first case outside China.

The traveller 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.

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.

Still, it’s a “stark reminder” of the continuing threat to global health security of diseases that are transmissible from animals to humans, they said.