- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2020

Federal health officials will start screening travelers coming to the U.S. from a Chinese city where a new SARS-like virus has sickened dozens and killed two.

Screenings will start Friday night at John F. Kennedy International Airport and Saturday at San Francisco and Los Angeles airports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

“This is a serious situation. We have faced this challenge before with SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and later with MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome],” said Nancy Messonnier, CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Both outbreaks were complex and required a comprehensive public health response.”

“We know it’s crucial to be proactive and prepared. First, outbreaks of new diseases among people are always a public health concern,” she said. “Second, while the discovery of a new virus can be exciting, we are still learning about it. This means our recommendations will continue to evolve as we learn more about the virus.”

Chinese health officials have confirmed 45 cases of the virus in the central city of Wuhan, including four more cases reported Friday. Three cases of the pneumonia illness have been exported outside of China, two in Thailand and one in Japan.

Two people infected with the new coronavirus have died, including a person who did not have underlying serious medical conditions.

Risk from the virus to the American public is low, based on current information, the CDC said.

Dr. Martin Cetron, the CDC’s director of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said airport screenings will be done three times a week. More than 60,000 flights arrive from Wuhan each year, with about 10% of them landing in January because of the Chinese lunar new year.

He expects about 5,000 travelers will be screened among the three airports over the next couple of weeks.

Wuhan officials may be starting exit screenings at its airport, but Dr. Cetron said the CDC has not confirmed that.

Most of the patients infected with the coronavirus had been exposed to seafood and animals from a large market in Wuhan.

While most cases show transmission of the virus from animals to people, Dr. Messonnier told reporters that it is possible that some cases have been spread from person to person.

China first reported the viral outbreak in late December. Scientists later discovered that a new coronavirus was the possible cause behind the mysterious pneumonia outbreak.

Coronaviruses can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to severe respiratory diseases such as SARS. They can infect animals and people and can spread through coughing, sneezing or contact with an infected person.

The outbreak had previously raised concerns about the highly contagious SARS virus, which killed hundreds of people in 2002 and 2003. But health officials ruled it out as the cause.

“We’re concerned anytime there is a new virus or new pathogen emerging in a population that hasn’t seen it before because it means that populations don’t have existing immunity, and we don’t have specific treatments or vaccines,” Dr. Messonnier said.

It is particularly concerning that the new coronavirus looks genetically similar to SERS and MERS, she said, which caused complicated, difficult outbreaks that sickened and killed many.

“It doesn’t take much for a virus in general to go from worrisome to extremely worrisome because they tend to morph and mutate a lot,” Dr. Messonnier said.

The CDC is sending about 100 more staff to the three airports to help at designated quarantine stations.

The New York and San Francisco airports have direct flights from Wuhan, while Los Angeles has indirect flights to the Chinese city.

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