Chinese authorities say viral pneumonia outbreak is not Sars, Mers or bird flu

Health surveillance officers waiting to scan passengers at Hong Kong International Airport on Jan 4, 2020. PHOTO: AP

BEIJING (AFP) - China on Sunday (Jan 5) said a mysterious viral pneumonia outbreak that has affected 59 people was not the flu-like virus Sars that killed hundreds more than a decade ago.

The infection was first reported last week in Wuhan, a central Chinese city with a population of over 11 million - leading to online speculation about a resurgence of the highly contagious Sars virus.

"We have excluded several hypotheses, in particular the fact that it is a flu, an avian flu, an adenovirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers)," the Wuhan health commission said.

Wuhan police on Wednesday said they had punished eight people for "publishing or forwarding false information on the internet without verification." The health commission said that seven of the 59 patients are seriously ill but that none have died. All are being treated in quarantine.

The infection broke out between 12 and 29 December, with some of the patients employed at a seafood market in the city that has since been closed for disinfection. No obvious evidence of human-to-human transmission has been found so far, it added.

"The reported link to a wholesale fish and live animal market could indicate an exposure link to animals," the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Sunday.

The symptoms reported in patients were mainly fever, with a few patients having difficulty in breathing and chest radiographs showing invasive lesions on both lungs.

"The symptoms reported among the patients are common to several respiratory diseases, and pneumonia is common in the winter season," said the WHO, adding that the concentration of cases should be handled "prudently".

It said it was against imposing any travel or trade restrictions on China.

SPH Brightcove Video
When The Straits Times visited Wuhan on Jan 10, 2020, residents in the central Chinese city appeared unperturbed by the mysterious viral outbreak. The Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is believed to be the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic.

WHO criticised China for under-reporting the number of cases following the outbreak.

China sacked its then health minister Zhang Wenkang for the poor handling of the crisis, several months after the first case was reported. WHO announced that China was free of SARS in May 2004.

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