Wuhan virus: Australia testing first suspected case, to start screening passengers from Wuhan

China is the largest source of tourists to Australia, with more than 1 million people arriving in 2019.
China is the largest source of tourists to Australia, with more than 1 million people arriving in 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP) - A man showing symptoms of a Sars-like virus after visiting China is being held in isolation at his Australian home, in the country’s first suspected case of the coronavirus, public broadcaster ABC reported on Tuesday (Jan 21). 

The man had recently returned from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, believed to be the epicentre of an outbreak of coronavirus, which has infected a total of 218 people and caused at least four deaths. 

He was recovering from a respiratory illness at his home in the north-eastern city of Brisbane, where the health authorities were awaiting the results of tests to determine whether he had contracted the new virus.

Meanwhile, Australia announced it will begin screening passengers arriving from Wuhan, although the authorities warned that an outbreak would be hard to prevent.

Mr Brendan Murphy, chief medical officer for the Australian government, said biosecurity officials will begin screening passengers arriving on the three weekly flights to Sydney from Wuhan starting on Thursday.

Passengers will be given an information pamphlet and asked to present themselves if they have a fever or suspect they may have the disease.

The Chinese authorities have confirmed that more than 200 people have caught the new virus, which causes a type of pneumonia that has killed four people in Wuhan.

The virus - which can pass from person to person - broke out in Wuhan but four cases have been reported in Thailand, Japan and South Korea, raising concerns about its spread through international air travel.

Mr Murphy said the measures by Australia offered only limited protection.

"You cannot absolutely prevent the spread of disease into the country. The incubation period is probably a week," Mr Murphy told reporters in Canberra.

"It's about identifying those with a high risk and making sure those who have a high risk know about it and know how to get medical attention."

China is the largest source of tourists to Australia, with more than 1 million people arriving last year.

 
 
 
 

Around 160 flights arrive in Australia from China each week, and Mr Murphy acknowledged Chinese tourists could arrive via other locations. There are only three flights from Wuhan each week, arriving in Sydney.

Australia's additional screenings come as hundreds of millions of Chinese prepare to travel domestically and abroad during the Chinese New Year holidays that start this week.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged Australians to remain calm. 

"We are well prepared to respond to this situation and we will continue to monitor and take action where necessary," Mr Morrison tweeted. 

The government would raise its travel advisory for Wuhan to urge Australians to reconsider travelling to the city, he added. 

Despite the elevated risk, Mr Murphy said Australia will not begin scanning passengers for higher body temperatures, a precaution previously used during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak.

Sars killed nearly 800 people globally during the 2002-2003 outbreak that also started in China, but Mr Murphy said recent evidence indicated body-temperature screening was ineffective and created a false sense of security.