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Health experts: Human-to-human spread of new virus worrying

Speed of virus a worry

World health officials, back from a visit to Beijing, expressed great concern Wednesday that a dangerous new virus is spreading between people outside of China, even as the number of illnesses continue to grow dramatically inside that Asian nation.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than were sickened during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. On Wednesday, the number cases jumped to 5,974, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with SARS.

The death toll, which stood at 132 Wednesday, is lower than the 348 people who died in China from SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Scientists say there are still many questions to be answered about the new virus, including just how easily it spreads and how severe it is.

The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief told reporters on Wednesday that China was taking “extraordinary measures in the face of an extraordinary challenge" posed by the outbreak.

Dr. Michael Ryan spoke at a news conference after returning from a trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior government leaders. He said the epidemic remains centred in the city of Wuhan and in Hubei province but that “information is being updated and is changing by the hour.”

Ryan said the few cases of human-to-human spread of the virus outside China — in Japan, Germany and Vietnam — were part of the reason the U.N. health agency’s director-general has reconvened an expert committee to meet Thursday. It will assess whether the outbreak should be declared a global emergency.

To date, about 99% of the nearly 6,000 cases are in China. Ryan estimated the death rate of the new virus at 2%, but said the figure was very preliminary. With fluctuating numbers of cases and deaths, scientists are only able to produce a rough estimate of the fatality rate and it’s likely many milder cases of the virus are being missed.

In comparison, the SARS virus killed about 10% of people who caught it.

Ryan noted there were several aspects of the new virus outbreak that are extremely worrying, citing the recent rapid spike in cases in China. He said that while scientists believe the outbreak was sparked by an animal virus, it’s unclear if there are other factors driving the epidemic.

“Without understanding that, it’s very hard to put into context the current transmission dynamics,” he said.



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