Hong Kong has stepped up detection measures for the new Wuhan coronavirus after Chinese officials acknowledged what many experts had feared: that the contagion appears to be transferrable from human to human, even as experts in Hong Kong today suggested the scale of the outbreak could massively underestimated.
The measures came as Chinese respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan confirmed two cases of human-to-human transmission of the pneumonia-like illness in China’s Wuhan and Guandong provinces, and after some 15 medical personnel were similiarly infected, also presumably by human-to-human transmission, state broadcaster CCTV said on Monday.
According to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, the death toll from the disease stood at six as of today, while the National Health Commission put the total number of confirmed infections in the mainland at 291 today.
However, staff at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Medicine this morning told reporters that according to transmission models developed overseas, the number of cases could be much higher — perhaps higher than 1,300.
For the first time, meanwhile, officials have also confirmed that the virus has spread to other parts of mainland China, with five confirmed cases in Beijing, 14 in Guangdong — which borders Hong Kong — and 54 more spread across 14 other provinces, excluding Wuhan.
Suspected or confirmed cases, meanwhile, have also been reported in Japan, Thailand, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, where as of today, the total number of suspected infections reported stood at 117. So far, however, there have been no confirmed cases in the city.
“We have entered a highly alerted stage, which means we are mentally prepared for the human-to-human transmission of the virus. We have not let our guard down,” Hong Kong No. 2 Matthew Cheung said in a press conference this morning.
The new disease has sparked no small amount of concern in Hong Kong, where memories are still fresh of the SARS outbreak that killed nearly 300 people here more than a decade ago. Those concerns have only been multiplied by the prospect of millions of Chinese citizens traveling over the upcoming Lunar New Year.
The WHO will convene an emergency meeting in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss whether the new virus constitutes a global health emergency.
Health Secretary Sophia Chan said in a meeting yesterday that Hong Kong officials will be keeping a closer eye on arrivals from Wuhan.
Passengers arriving on flights from Wuhan will now have to fill in health declaration forms, declaring any symptoms and putting down their contact information for follow-up action if necessary.
Travelers who do not comply with the declaration form requirement, or who give false information, will be subject to a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a HK$5,000 fine.
Director of Health Dr Constance Chan today faced a barrage of questions as to why the measure was not extended to mainland arrivals at the high-speed railway station in Kowloon, or other border crossings. But Chan said such measures would be counterproductive, as it was not desirable from a disease control standpoint if a large number of travelers were stuck at border points filling out forms.
“Temperature screening at those terminals was already operationally sufficient and appropriate,” she said.
Microbiologist and physician Yuen Kwok-yung, meanwhile, expressed concern in a press conference today as to whether Hong Kong was ready for a major outbreak, but added that the situation in the city is “relatively stable” due to the enhanced monitoring of clinical infections, and the improved quality of laboratories as compared to a decade ago.