China identifies virus, New strain is found in 15 of the patients.
The swift discovery of a new strain of coronavirus is a “notable achievement”, but more information is needed to understand it, experts said after China identified the mystery pneumonia behind an outbreak in Wuhan that infected 59 people.
A top official at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told state news agency Xinhua on Thursday that laboratory tests had identified the new virus and the whole genome sequence had been obtained.
Fifteen patients in Wuhan, Hubei province, had tested positive for the virus, which showed “typical coronavirus morphology”, according to Xu Jianguo, director of the CDC’s National Institute for Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, who headed a group of experts to identify the illness.
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause diseases varying in severity from the common cold to the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars). Of the six previously known human coronaviruses, four were common and caused only minor respiratory symptoms similar to those of a cold. The other two are Sars, which killed more than 700 people worldwide after originating in China, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), which has killed more than 850 around the world since 2012.
Dr Gauden Galea, the World Health Organisation (WHO) representative to China, described the preliminary identification of the new coronavirus in a short period of time as “a notable achievement” that would help authorities in other countries to detect and respond to outbreaks.
But he called for more comprehensive information to understand what triggered the outbreak and how to manage it in the coming weeks.
“Further investigations are also required to determine the source, modes of transmission, extent of infection and countermeasures implemented,” Galea said.
He said the WHO would continue to monitor the situation closely and was ready to provide technical support to China to investigate and respond to the outbreak.
Lu Hongzhou, an epidemiologist at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, which helped to identify the coronavirus, said that although scientists were on alert for any mutations, the public had no cause to panic.
“The virus appears not to be highly pathogenic or contagious. There have been no fatalities and no cases of medical staff becoming infected,” he said.
But identifying the virus was only the first step and a huge amount of work was still needed to trace its source, he said.
“The CDC has been working on it and any cases that are related to the Wuhan outbreak will be reported,” Lu said.
“The pathogen of these unexplained cases of viral pneumonia was initially identified as a new type of coronavirus,” he said, adding that initial identification needed to be followed up with further research.