Expert worries over third-wave spread of Wuhan pneumonia

January 22, 2020 12:03
Prof. Yuen Kwok-yung (right), a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong(HKU), says it is still possible that the Wuhan coronavirus may mutate and therefore it is too early to comment on what will happen next. Photo: HKEJ

The spread of a novel coronavirus causing a pneumonia outbreak centered on China's Wuhan city may have entered the third wave, according to Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).

Speaking to media in Hong Kong on Tuesday after returning from a trip to Wuhan, where he recently joined an expert team formed by China's National Health Commission (NHC) for an inspection visit, Yuen said although the death rate and other data related to the viral pneumonia are currently not as serious as those seen in the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, it is still possible that the virus may mutate and therefore it is too early to comment on what will happen next.

Advising people in Hong Kong to avoid non-essential travel to Wuhan, which he described as an endemic area, Yuen said the first wave of the epidemic was the virus entering human bodies from animals.

The second wave, as per Yuen, was the virus spreading from the seafood market in Wuhan, which was believed to be the source, to the neighboring areas.

It is likely that the third wave has begun as some cases regarding spread in families and hospitals have been reported, Yuen said, adding that he is worried there will be community outbreaks, just like what was seen during the period when SARS was raging.

According to information from the NHC, the total number of confirmed novel coronavirus infections in the mainland and Taiwan has risen to 321 cases as of Tuesday night, including six who had died and some healthcare workers who contracted the virus from patients.

However, based on the mathematical model of the HKU's Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, there could already be 1,343 cases in Wuhan as of January 17.

As the reagent for the rapid test of the virus is being used extensively, there is no such thing as concealment of the disease, Yuen said, stressing that the most important thing at present is to contain and ease the epidemic in Wuhan so as to prevent it from happening in other cities or regions.

The microbiologist stressed that Hong Kong's defenses have been strong so far, with the SAR and the mainland having significantly improved their preventative measures and disease control work in the past decade or so, RTHK reported.

Still, he said he won't be surprised if any Wuhan-linked pneumonia cases are confirmed in Hong Kong, given the fact that many mainlanders will come to the city to spend their Lunar New Year holidays.

Starting from midnight Tuesday, all inbound travellers by air from Wuhan are required to complete and submit a health declaration form in Hong Kong under the Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation.

Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller of the Centre for Health Protection under the Department of Health, said a total of 207 air passengers arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday and only one of them was found to have a fever. That person was sent to hospital for assessment and treatment.

HKU Professor Gabriel Leung Cheuk-wai, a specialist in public health medicine, believes the government has taken sufficient preventive measures at all immigration control points.

But Dr Ho Pak-Leung, director of the HKU's Carol Yu Centre for Infection, suggested that the government's measures still have room for improvement.

Among the issues, the publicity aimed at enhancing people's awareness about prevention and control measures for the Wuhan-linked pneumonia is severely insufficient, he said.

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