UN health agency urges China to continue search for source of new virus, as Thailand case emerges

US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases The MERS coronavirus, digitally imaged.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


It is “essential” for China to continue investigating the source of a previously unknown strain of coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared on Monday, following confirmation that an infected patient is being treated in Thailand.

In its statement, WHO identified the patient as a traveller from Wuhan, in China, who was hospitalized in Thailand on 8 January. According to Thai authorities, the patient is recovering from the illness.

The novel coronavirus is believed to have originated in Wuhan, infecting dozens of people in China and, on Saturday, Chinese media reported the first known death from the virus.

Coronaviruses rely on animal to human transmission, and the health commission in Wuhan has reportedly declared that there is no evidence of any spread between humans.

However, given recent developments, WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is planning to consult with the members of the agency’s Emergency Committee, and could call for a meeting of the Committee at short notice.

In its Monday statement, WHO noted that it has been expecting cases to be reported in countries other than China, underscoring the importance of monitoring and preparedness in other countries. The work of WHO and the Chinese authorities in containing the new coronavirus will be made more complicated by the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, which begins on January 25, and sees hundreds of millions criss-crossing the country.

WHO has issued guidance on how to detect and treat persons ill with the new virus: standard recommendations for halting the spread of coronaviruses include regular hand washing; covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing; thoroughly cooking meat and eggs; and avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are described by WHO as “a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases”. Probably the best known is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly known as SARS, which broke out in Asia in 2003, and spread to countries in North America, South America and Europe, before being successfully contained later that year.

Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and people, and there are several known coronaviruses currently circulating in animals, that have not yet infected humans.

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

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