NEWS
22/01/2020 7:59 AM AEDT

Australia To Screen Some China Flights, Warns Deadly Wuhan Coronavirus Difficult To Stop

“You cannot absolutely prevent the spread of disease into the country."

REUTERS/Aly Song
Passengers wearing masks are seen at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai, China January 20, 2020.

Australia will begin screening passengers arriving from a Chinese city in a bid to stop the spread of a new mystery virus, the country’s chief medical officer said on Tuesday, although authorities warned that an outbreak would be hard to prevent.

Chinese authorities have confirmed more than 200 people have caught the coronavirus, which can cause a type of pneumonia that has killed at least six people. 

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.

The first US case of a new coronavirus strain has been reported in Washington state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

Darley Shen / Reuters
Medical staff carry a box as they walk at the Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 10, 2020. Picture taken January 10, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer CHINA OUT

The deadly virus, which Chinese health officials have said can spread by human-to-human contact, has sickened hundreds of people, according to the mayor of China’s central city of Wuhan, where an outbreak is underway. 

The male US patient is a resident of Snohomish County, Washington. He was hospitalised last week in Everett with pneumonia after returning from a trip to Wuhan, health officials said at a news conference.

Darley Shen / Reuters
Medical staff transfer a patient at the Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer CHINA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“We believe the risk to the public is low,” Washington state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said. Wiesman credited the patient’s decision to seek immediate medical help for helping prevent the virus from spreading.

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

Passengers would be given an information pamphlet and asked to present themselves if they had a fever or suspected they might have the disease.

Murphy said the measures only offered limited protection.

“You cannot absolutely prevent the spread of disease into the country. The incubation period is probably a week,” 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 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 Lunar New Year holiday that starts 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,” 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, Murphy said Australia would 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 2002/03 outbreak that also started in China, but Murphy said recent evidence indicated body-temperature screening was ineffective and created a false sense of security.

Reporting by Colin Packham.

 Nina Golgowski contributed to this report.