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18.01.2020 Europe

Screening starts at US airports as fears of mystery Chinese virus grow

AFP Photo/Noel Celis
LISTEN JAN 18, 2020

The scale of the outbreak of a Chinese virus similar to that which causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), is likely to be far bigger than officially reported, scientists have warned, as countries ramp up measures to prevent the disease from spreading.

Fears that the virus will spread are growing ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on 25 January, when hundreds of millions of Chinese move around the country and many others visit family members living overseas.

Authorities in China say two people have died and at least 45 have been infected, with the outbreak centred around a seafood market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million inhabitants that serves as a major transport hub.

Three overseas cases confirmed so far
A report published on Friday by scientists at the Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London said the number of cases in the city was probably closer to 1,700.

The researchers said their estimate was largely based on the fact that cases had been reported overseas -- two in Thailand and one in Japan.

After the most recent death was reported, online discussion spread in China over the severity of the Wuhan coronavirus -- and how much information the government may be hiding from the public.

There have been complaints about the censorship of online posts, with comparisons to 2003, when Beijing drew criticism from the World Health Organisation for underreporting the number of SARS cases.

The new virus has caused alarm because of its connection to SARS, which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

Hong Kong, US airports start passenger screening

China has not announced any travel restrictions, but authorities in Hong Kong have already stepped up detection measures, including rigorous temperature checkpoints for inbound travellers from the Chinese mainland.

The US said from Friday it would begin screening flights arriving from Wuhan at San Francisco airport and New York's JFK -- which both receive direct flights -- as well as Los Angeles, where many flights connect.

And Thailand said it was already screening passengers arriving in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket and would soon introduce similar controls in the beach resort of Krabi.