Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Passengers wear face masks in a subway station in Beijing, one of several cities in China that have reported cases of a new coronavirus.

REUTERS/Jason Lee TPX

Arrival of new SARS-like virus in U.S. heightens concerns about global spread

It’s hard to keep up with the outbreak of the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan last month, but one thing seems increasingly clear: The virus isn’t going away anytime soon. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just reported the first case in the United States, a patient who returned from Wuhan on 15 January and sought treatment in Washington after developing symptoms. Taiwan also confirmed its first infection today, and a boy in the Philippines reportedly tested positive for the virus. (Thailand, Japan, and South Korea have all previously reported cases.) The total number of confirmed cases again shot up today, to more than 300, including six deaths.

Meanwhile, a panel of Chinese health experts confirmed yesterday what many scientists suspected or feared for a while: The new virus is able to spread between people, which means it could be a lot harder to control. The panel also said health care workers have become infected.

The rapid spread heightened fears of a rerun of the severe acute respiratory syndrome episode in 2003, when a related coronavirus spread from China to more than 30 countries. “This outbreak is extremely concerning,” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement today. “The urgent focus must be on evidence-based interventions. We do not have proven treatments or vaccines,” says Farrar, who added that the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which Wellcome supports, is “working with global partners to accelerate vaccine research for this new virus.”

Chinese health authorities have now confirmed cases of the new disease in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and other cities around the country, some far beyond the central inland city of Wuhan. This trend could foretell a wider dispersion of the virus during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, when an estimated 400 million Chinese are expected to travel by bus, rail, and air to their hometowns.

A panel advising China’s National Health Commission announced the cases of human-to-human transmission yesterday during an afternoon press conference. Later, the panel’s head, epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, elaborated in an interview with China Central Television, the state broadcaster. Portions of the interview were posted on China Daily.

“It has been confirmed that two people in Guangdong province were infected through human-to-human transmission,” Zhong said in the interview. He explained that members of a Guangdong family who had returned home from a visit to Wuhan passed the virus on to two other members of the family. Zhong also said a number of medical workers in Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, have tested positive for the virus.

The latter revelation raised questions about the accuracy of reports by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. In an 11 January outbreak update, the commission stated that no cases of illness had been found among close contacts, including medical staff. But more recent updates do not specifically mention medical staff. Chinese media reported today that it is now known that 15 medical workers in Wuhan have been infected. An editorial comment on ifeng.com, a Chinese news portal, blasted the commission: “If Zhong Nanshan had not said that medical staff were infected last night, would the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission continue to hide this information?

During the press briefing, George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the virus is adapting to humans, but he did not give details. Such adaptations would show up in the virus’s genome, but in an analysis he posted online, evolutionary biologist Andrew Rambaut of the University of Edinburgh said there is very little variation in the 14 genomes of the coronavirus available so far. Gao also said the presumed animal source of the virus has still not been identified.