The University Hospitals of Geneva have developed a test to detect a new strain of the coronavirus which is spreading across the world from China.
The World Health Organization (WHO) decided on Thursday that the outbreak was not a global health emergency, but deemed it a local crisis. It said however, that the situation may yet turn into an emergency.
Until now, the WHO has only declared international public health emergencies in rare cases, such as for the swine flu pandemic of 2009, the Zika outbreak in 2016 and the Ebola virus (part of Western Africa in 2014; Republic of Congo since 2018).
This new strain of the coronavirus has so far killed at least 25 people and infected more than 800, the Chinese government said on Friday. It is now present in around half of the Chinese provinces, including the huge cities of Beijing and Shanghai. In all, 18 cities have been shut down in Hubei province, of which Wuhan, the source of the virus, is the capital. Cases have also been reported in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia and the United States.
Health officials fear the transmission rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during week-long holidays for the Lunar New Year, which begins
Experts say there are two particularly worrying points about this virus: human-to-human transmission, which has been confirmed by a Swiss researcher, and the fact that the virus can easily mutate and defend itself.
Test for China returners
Around ten days ago the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG) developed a test for the virus that can rapidly detect whether people are contagious.
“The virus has been identified; we have its full genetic code,” Laurent Kaiser, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the HUG, told Swiss public television, RTSexternal link.
The test is very simple: a swab is taken from the back of the throat or from the nose with a cotton bud. It would be applied to people coming back from China who present cold-like symptoms that include coughing, fever, muscular pain and breathing difficulties.
“If the symptoms are limited, patients will receive the usual care. Our worry is that patients develop pneumonia,” Kaiser said, adding that at present there is no vaccine or treatment against this new virus.
The previously unknown virus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in Wuhan. Most transport in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was suspended on Thursday and people were told not to leave. Hours later, neighbouring Huanggang, a city of about seven million people, announced a similar lockdown.
Kaiser says the virus is “70% similar to SARS”. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), an atypical form of pneumonia, infected around 8,000 and killed 774 in 2002-2003.
“We have all the elements and ingredients which could cause big epidemics in some countries,” he told RTS.
Finding a vaccine will take years, but for now it’s not clear whether the virus will persist among humans. “The epidemic could also disappear as quickly as it appeared,” Kaiser said.
Swiss airports: no measures
Several countries, including the US, have upped monitoring measures at airports for travellers coming back from Wuhan province. However, Chinese authorities have now banned flights from the region.
“Although there are air connections from Wuhan to Europe (London, Paris and Rome), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control judgesexternal link the risk of importation as moderate, also for Switzerland,” the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health said in a statementexternal link on Thursday.
There is no need at the moment to take measures in Switzerland like those seen in southeastern Asian countries, the statement continued.
Switzerland is “very well prepared” said Swiss Home Affairs Minister Alain Berset at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Tuesday. The country is also ready to support international efforts against a pandemic, as it did during the Ebola crisis, he said.
(Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson), swissinfo.ch