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Coronavirus cases spread fear in East Asian countries

January 22, 2020

A mysterious virus that began in China has already spread to several East Asian countries. Experts fear that Lunar New Year travelers will take the virus with them and cause further outbreaks. Julian Ryall reports.

Coronavirus has reached several East Asian countries, including Japan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/E. Hoshiko

Governments throughout East Asia are implementing measures designed to stop a mysterious coronavirus from spreading any further.

The outbreak of the coronavirus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan,  and experts are concerned at how rapidly the disease has already traveled.

Isolated cases have been reported in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Macau, Hong Kong and the United States, with at least 440 cases in China and nine deaths so far.

First reported in China late last year, it was initially believed that the virus was transmitted from animals to humans, but the latest indications are that it can be transferred between humans.

And with millions of Chinese on the move in the coming days as the annual Lunar New Year holidays begin, there are fears that the coronavirus may soon spread far and wide.

Read more: Everything you need to know about the new coronavirus

Japan on 'high alert'

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe summoned his ministers to a meeting on Tuesday and instructed them to put the country on "high alert" and to take all necessary measures to halt the spread of the virus.

Abe said he is especially concerned about the large number of Chinese tourists who are expected to travel to Japan over the coming days for the Lunar New Year.

Ordering his ministers to be "vigilant," Abe called for quarantine efforts to be enhanced, and for anyone suspected of having the virus to be closely monitored and not permitted to spread it any further.

He also called for more information on the outbreak and the cause of the virus to be obtained and shared with overseas health authorities.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has updated its website and instructed immigration and quarantine officials at air and sea ports of entry to be on the alert for people showing symptoms of the illness.

New posters — in Japanese, Chinese and English — are also being placed at airports and seaports.

Quarantine officers conduct body temperature check for passengers at the quarantine station of the international terminal at Tokyo International Airport at Haneda in Tokyo, Japan, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020
Quarantine officers at Tokyo International Airport conduct body temperature check for international passengersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Jiji Press/A. Yoshida

The ministry's warning notice states: "If you are returning or entering Japan from Wuhan City and if you have symptoms, such as a cough or a fever, please wear a mask and immediately contact a medical institution for an examination."

The ministry has also called on local health authorities and medical professionals around the country to be on the lookout for people showing symptoms of the illness and to report cases to the ministry.

The head of the virology division of Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases has expressed concern at the speed with which the virus has spread in spite of efforts to contain it and warned that any claim that the outbreak is under control is incorrect.

Dr. Masayuki Saijo said he is more worried about the outbreak today than he was a week ago.

"It has continued to grow and the number of people affected is continuing to rise. It has spread much faster than I had originally expected," he told DW.

Read more: China mystery virus death toll rises 

Outbreak 'not under control'

"I don't want to comment on other countries' efforts but at this stage I can say that any suggestion that the outbreak is under control is saying too much," Saijo added.

There are a number of parallels between the spread of this virus and the outbreak of the SARS virus in southern China in 2002, Saijo explained.

Read more: SARS remembered — how a deadly respiratory virus hit Asian economies

"But while the outbreak appears similar at the moment to SARS in the way that it has spread — first within China, then into neighboring areas, such as Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore and then to North America — we cannot predict with any certainty how it will spread from now on," the expert underlined.

"And there are still many things that we have not been able to confirm, and therefore we cannot compare this with our past experiences," Saijo said. "It is very important that the international community works closely together and cooperates to find solutions."

Other countries are taking similar measures, including North Korea, with authorities on Wednesday blocking tourist groups from crossing into the North from China.

Health authorities in Taiwan have confirmed that a woman who arrived in Taipei on Monday from Wuhan had been hospitalized with symptoms similar to flu. The woman, who has not been named but is in her 50s, is understood to be in stable condition and does not appear to have passed the illness on to anyone else.

South Korea is also ramping up screening of passengers arriving at airports and sea ports, particularly any from Wuhan or nearby parts of China. Seoul has so far identified two people with the illness, both Chinese nationals who are being treated in an isolation ward and are reported to be in stable conditions.

Quarantine team

A 24-hour quarantine team is on stand-by in Seoul to deal with suspected cases, the city's health authorities said on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific has instructed all its crew on flights to destinations in China to wear face masks while Russia has also introduced screening for passengers arriving on flights from Chinese cities.

Japan Airlines has introduced its own measures aboard aircraft arriving in Japan from other parts of Asia, company spokesman Mark Morimoto said.

"Our head office is attempting to gather as much information as possible on the illness," he said. "We have started issuing announcements on our flights for anyone who feels unwell to contact quarantine officers as soon as possible."

Kanako Ooko, a housewife from Kanagawa Prefecture, where the first case in Japan was confirmed, said she is worried.

"I obviously still have to go to the shops and take my son to school, so I will have to come into contact with other people at some point in my day, so that is a worry," she told DW.

"The best thing I can do is to wear a mask and hope that this case in Japan was an isolated thing. I remember the SARS outbreak a few years ago and that was really frightening," she added. "I hope this doesn't become as bad as that."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea