A SARS-like coronavirus is spreading through Asia and could make it to Australia

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  Last updated January 20, 2020 at 11:03 am


The second case of a new coronavirus has been confirmed outside of China, with experts warning we should prepare for cases in Australia.

coronavirus_facemask_virus outbreak

For now the coronavirus doesn’t appear to easily transmit between humans, but there are still health warnings to be alert. Credit: ROMEO GACAD/AFP via Getty Images

Why This Matters: Global connections mean we need to stay vigilant to prevent viruses spreading.

A confirmed case of a new coronavirus that originated in China has been detected in Japan, the second confirmed case outside China’s borders.

A previous case of the virus, known as 2019-nCoV, was identified in Thailand earlier this month, so could the disease reach our shores soon?

Sanjaya Senanayake from ANU told the AusSMC that this virus comes from the same family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), “which also began in China, and caused a pandemic about 16-17 years ago”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that this new Japanese case was identified in a person who travelled to Wuhan, China, where the initial outbreak occurred.

According to Senanyake, there have been two deaths and over 40 cases identified, “nearly all of whom attended a seafood/live market in Wuhan”.

“This suggests an animal source,” he says.

We should prepare for cases in Australia

And while WHO has advised against travel or trade restrictions based on the information currently available, Adam Kamradt-Scott from the University of Sydney told the Centre we should prepare for cases here in Australia.

“Given that there are direct flights between Sydney and Wuhan, which is currently the epicentre of the coronavirus, there is a reasonable chance that we might see cases emerge in Australia,” he says.

The closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city of Wuhan where it’s reported that the man who died from a respiratory illness had purchased goods Credit: NOEL CELIS / AFP/Getty Images

“Given our public health system, we are well-placed to care for anyone who might have contracted the virus, but it is only through international cooperation that we will see this novel pathogen contained.”

Biosecurity expert at the Kirby Institute at UNSW, Raina MacIntyre, says Wuhan’s status as a travel hub is particularly important to consider, as it provides the virus with opportunities to travel further afield than SARS did.

“Wuhan is an economic hub and a much larger city than Guangzhou, where SARS arose, so we may see more travel-related cases,” she says.

Elsewhere: How does norovirus spread through cruise ships?

“In research which we did on MERS-CoV [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome], we showed travel-related risk associated with frequency of international flights in and out of Saudi Arabia. In the same way, the volume of travel from China to Australia will determine the risk of travel-related cases occurring here.”

Avoid travelling to affected areas

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS and SARS.

2019-nCoV is a new strain that has not previously been identified in humans, and for now it appears that it does not transmit as easily between humans as SARS did.

Also: A sneeze don’t make the ‘flu fly

But this could change as the virus mutates, so researchers say it’s important to remain cautious and keep your doctor up-to-speed on where you’ve been.

“We see outbreaks of serious emerging infections occurring when there is a failure to identify the infection initially, such as the hospital outbreak of MERS-CoV in South Korea where the patient travelled from the Middle East and was not diagnosed until he had visited multiple hospitals,” MacIntyre says.

For now, the best thing to do is “avoid travelling to affected areas, and avoid wet markets and other areas where animals are present, if visiting Wuhan”, she added.

“If you think you have been exposed, always mention your travel history to doctors.”

You can read the full AusSMC Expert Reaction here.

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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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