Can the novel coronavirus spreading with renewed vigour be stopped?

Corona- Screening-Optimized

Even as 18 countries/regions have reported 67 cases of novel coronavirus as on January 28 morning, no confirmed case has been reported so far in India. But it must be borne in mind that in 2017, the health ministry kept under wraps the detection of three Zika virus cases in Ahmedabad district, Gujarat.

Even as 17 countries/regions have reported 66 cases of novel coronavirus as on January 28 morning, no confirmed case has been reported so far in India. As on January 27, all the 20 samples sent to the National Institute of Virology, Pune for testing have turned out negative for the virus, the health ministry tweeted.

With eight cases each, Thailand and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region have the most number of cases followed by Macau with seven cases. Australia, Singapore, the U.S, and Taiwan have five cases each. Malaysia, Japan and South Korea have reported four cases each, while France has reported three cases. Canada and Vietnam have reported two cases each. German, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Ivory Coast have reported one case each.

Besides NIV, ICMR’s four other Viral Research & Diagnostics Lab Network in Alleppey, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai have been equipped to test for the novel virus; it will be extended to 10 labs in the coming days. Thermal screening of passengers arriving from China is in place at seven airports and over 33,000 passengers have been screened so far. Thirteen more airports in India will begin screening passengers arriving from China. With Nepal reporting one case, “adequate preparedness for screening” is in place in five adjoining States, the ministry tweeted.

A dangerous precedent

But it must be borne in mind that in 2017, the health ministry kept under wraps the detection of three Zika virus cases in Ahmedabad district, Gujarat. The cases came to light when the government informed the World Health Organization in May that year, more than five months after the first case was laboratory-confirmed. The excuse then given was that the government wanted to avoid creating “panic” in the society.

Such irresponsible behaviour by China had led to large-scale spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus that killed 774 people globally in the early 2000s. India should under no circumstances repeat it with the novel coronavirus as much is not known about the virus.

Accelerated spread

Despite about 20 million people being locked down in several cities in Hubei province in China, the virus appears to be spreading with renewed vigour. The number of cases reported from mainland China has been increasing sharply in the last two days — from 1,975 on January 25 to 2,744 on January 26 and 4,515 on January 27. The number of deaths too has been showing a similar trend — from 56 on January 25 to 80 the next day and 106 on January 27.

The number of exported cases and countries that have such cases has also been increasing. First case of human-to-human transmission was reported from outside China in Vietnam, and now in Germany. The virus has long acquired the ability to spread among humans; the WHO emergency committee meeting statement said China had reported fourth-generation cases in Wuhan and second-generation cases outside Wuhan.

Alarmingly, unlike in the case of SARS, more asymptomatic cases are being reported in the case of the novel coronavirus. Besides a reported case of a child in China being asymptomatic, the WHO has reported three other such instances outside China.

Changing infection landscape

But the China’s National Health Commission Minister warning on Sunday that the novel virus might be spreading even before people exhibit symptoms has the potential to change the infection landscape altogether if true. It is not clear if these were the reasons why on Monday the WHO silently updated the global risk assessment from moderate to high retroactively from January 23.

If the virus had exhibited all the attributes necessary to be declared as ‘Public health emergency of international concern’ even during the first emergency committee meeting, the situation has become grim since then. The global health body cannot dither any longer.

Published in The Hindu on January 29, 2020