(5th LD) S. Korea on high alert amid possible human-to-human spread of new coronavirus

January 21, 2020

South Korea’s quarantine authorities said Tuesday they are ratcheting up efforts to contain a new type of Chinese coronavirus amid reports that the virus can spread among people, after the country reported the first confirmed case of the SARS-like disease early this week.

Multiple media reports indicated that two Chinese confirmed to have been infected with the new strain of the pneumonia-like illness spreading across China other parts of Asia have never been to the city of Wuhan — where the virus appears to have originated.

Chinese quarantine workers wearing protective suits and masks are posted at an entrance to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, central China, on Jan. 21, 2020. The market is considered as the epicenter of the pneumonia-like illness that has spread through China and parts of Asia. (Yonhap)
A quarantine official (L) checks a traveller for fever and other symptoms at South Korea's Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, in this file photo taken on Jan. 20, 2020. (Yonhap)

Chinese quarantine workers wearing protective suits and masks are posted at an entrance to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, central China, on Jan. 21, 2020. The market is considered as the epicenter of the pneumonia-like illness that has spread through China and parts of Asia. (Yonhap)

“There are circumstances in which the new coronavirus was transmitted between humans,” Lee Sun-kyoo, an official of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), said. “We cannot give exact details as the matter is currently being judged.”

The KCDC said it will take precautionary steps, such as requiring medical staff to wear masks and mandating that those who show pneumonia-like symptoms be subject to compulsory quarantine.

A Chinese national who arrived through South Korea’s main gateway, Incheon International Airport, was confirmed with the disease on Monday, and the 35-year old woman from Wuhan is currently being quarantined at a designated isolation ward and is in a stable condition, with no pneumonia-like symptoms present, according to the KCDC.

An epidemiological investigation shows that 44 people, including 29 passengers and 5 flight crew members, had contact with the patient, the KCDC said. Nine of them already left the country, and the other 35 people have not shown any symptoms.

The KCDC said that three more people who showed pneumonia-like symptoms and were placed in quarantine earlier in the day have all tested negative from the new type of coronavirus. It said the three had common cases of influenza and acute respiratory virus infections, and that they were released from isolation.

Earlier, the KCDC elevated the country’s infectious disease alert level from “blue” to “yellow” and asked airports and sea ferry terminals nationwide to strengthen quarantine efforts.

Incheon International Airport, the country’s main passenger transportation hub, said it expects to handle over a million people during the four day-long Lunar New Year holiday that kicks off on Friday. Airport authorities said that with such a large number of people using its facilities it will take every action to detect and isolate people showing symptoms and conduct sweeping quarantine and disinfection operations of public areas, including toilets, drinking fountains, phone booths and escalators.

It added that people getting off planes from Wuhan will be processed through a separate gate.

Gimhae International Airport, the gateway to Busan and southeastern South Korea, shifted to a heightened alert status. The Gimhae airport, which receives a large share of its international traffic from China, has no direct flight route to Wuhan of Hubei Province but operates a number of routes to other cities in China and Southeast Asia.

A KCDC official at the Gimhae airport said the agency is closely checking the body temperatures of international passengers arriving from China and other regions.

Cheongju International Airport, located in the central part of the country, has also stepped up inspections. Cheongju International Airport does not operate direct flights from Wuhan but has a high number of inbound travelers.

The airports have also been offering information and guidance on preventive measures for infectious diseases to China-bound travelers.

In addition to actions taken by the quarantine office and airport authorities, the foreign ministry here held a teleconference with all of its missions in China to ask them to look after the welfare of all South Korean nationals traveling in their regions.

The ministry said that in the event that a person contracts the illness and is placed in isolation, immediate consular support must be given and such cases must be swiftly reported to the ministry and the KCDC.

Beijing put the death toll from the coronavirus at six, with a total of 291 people testing positive for the virus associated with the illness, including over a dozen medical personnel. It said 922 people are being closely monitored, with local media reporting new patients being confirmed in places, like Tianjin.

The head of a Chinese government agency said during a TV interview that human-to-human transmission has been confirmed in an outbreak of the coronavirus, adding to worries it could spread more quickly and widely. Beijing said that with the Lunar New Year holidays just days away, the travel could cause a rapid spread of the virus. It will be setting up thermal detector checkpoints at airports to check passengers for fever, with transportation officials empowered to cancel boarding passes for people that may be infected with the new coronavirus.

This assessment was shared by the World Health Organization that cautioned that transmission between people may continue for some time. It added that despite efforts experts are still not sure where the new virus strain came from and how it is spread.

Besides the confirmed case in South Korea, Japan said one person contracted the new coronavirus, with two incidents being reported from Thailand and one in Taiwan.

North Korean state-run media, meanwhile, said Pyongyang too was working with the WHO and making a national effort to prevent the new virus from entering the country.

It highlighted some of the symptoms associated with the illness and said that just as the government is taking all steps to counter the health threat, citizens must thoroughly disinfect their surroundings and take extra care of personal hygiene.