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Hunt for coronavirus victims as trail leads from Singapore to UK and France | World news

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Hunt for coronavirus victims as trail leads from Singapore to UK and France | World news

An international manhunt is under way to trace more than 100 people who were at a business conference in Singapore where the British national who infected five others at a French ski resort is believed to have contracted the coronavirus.

French officials said the British national – reported to be a middle-aged man from Brighton – arrived in the resort of Contamines-Montjoie, near Mont Blanc, on 24 January and returned to England on 28 January.

The conference at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Singapore, held earlier in January, is believed to have been attended by 15 people from Singapore and 94 foreigners, and hosted by a multinational company. The Singaporean evening daily paper Lianhe Wanbao named the company as UK firm Servomex, a global gas analysis company with offices in Europe and Asia.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples – severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. 

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission, and there have been human-to-human transmissions in the US and in Germany. As of 8 February, the death toll stands at 722 inside China, one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. Infections inside China stand at 31,161 and global infections have passed 280 in 28 countries. The mortality rate is 2%.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, and a third person was diagnosed with it in Brighton, after more than 400 were tested and found negative. The Foreign Office has urged UK citizens to leave China if they can. Five new cases in France are British nationals, and British nationals are also among the 64 cases on a cruise liner off Japan.

The number of people to have contracted the virus could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP’s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

Is this a pandemic and should we panic?

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list.

There is no need to panic. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

Malaysian health authorities first revealed the virus’s link to the conference when they confirmed the case of a 41-year-old Malaysian who had attended it alongside colleagues from China, according to the New Straits Times.

South Korea has confirmed that two of its nationals who attended the conference also have the virus. The Koreans and the Malaysian shared a buffet meal during the conference, South Korean media reported. Of the 15 Singaporean attendees, four have been referred to its National Centre for Infectious Diseases, the country’s health ministry confirmed.

The World Health Organization is investigating the outbreak. “WHO is coordinating with relevant ministries of health in relation to it,” a WHO spokeswoman said. “As countries are stepping up surveillance, the detection of more cases of local transmission can be expected.”

The BBC reported that, upon his return to the UK, the infected British businessman isolated himself at his home and called NHS 111. After a positive test, he was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital in London where he is being treated.

Prof Keith Willett, NHS strategic incident director, told the Brighton Argus: “This patient did the right thing when they had concerns about coronavirus by calling NHS 111 for advice. After a telephone assessment, they were advised to make their way to Royal Sussex County hospital Brighton for testing. Following a pre-arranged plan with the NHS, they drove themselves to the hospital, were tested in isolation and away from public areas of the hospital, and returned home in isolation in their own car.”


Do face masks help prevent coronavirus? – video explainer

Public Health England advised a student at Portslade Aldridge community academy in Brighton to self-isolate for 14 days. The school said it had been advised by health authorities that there was no need to close.

The Brighton man told UK authorities he had visited a chalet in Contamines-Montjoie, prompting French officials to take the 11 Britons who had been staying there to hospitals in Lyon, Saint-Étienne and Grenoble on Friday night.

French authorities said the chalet had two apartments where two families had been staying. A British couple and their three children, who have reportedly lived in Contamines-Montjoie for three years and are now resident in France, live in one. The mother is in the UK, studying for exams, and has been contacted.

The three British children under examination in hospital in France – including a nine-year-old who has tested positive for the virus along with his father – attended a school in the resort, its mayor, Etienne Jacquet, told BFM TV. He said the two schools would be shut this week as the authorities investigated who they had been in contact with.

Seven tourists were staying in the other apartment. All the Britons staying in the apartments were taken to hospital. Agnes Buzyn, France’s health minister, said none was in a serious condition.

Neighbours said they learned of the outbreak on the news. “We saw a helicopter and the gendarmes, and we thought someone had been taken ill. but nobody told us anything,” said one of them.

The mayor of nearby resort Saint-Gervais, Jean-Marc Peillex, played down the risk to children at the local school, which has 200 pupils. He said the nine-year old boy had spent “half a day there with five pupils”.

Édouard Philippe, the French prime minister, called a meeting of health ministers yesterday and the ministry has opened a UK hotline (0800 100 379) in an attempt to find out who else may have been in contact with the Britons.

“We’re starting an important operation to identify cases of those in contact,” said Buzyn.

Local newspaper Le Dauphiné reported that Marie-Charlotte Pasquier of the Contamines-Montjoie tourist office had spent the morning reassuring tourists in the resort. There has been no public announcement but the town hall has been distributing leaflets with advice on how to avoid transmitting coronavirus. Local doctors have sent a consignment of disinfectant and face masks to the town hall.

The total number of people infected with the virus in France has now reached 11.

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