Coronavirus: ‘Likely’ that deadly infection will be confirmed in UK in the next few weeks

Andy Wells
Freelance Writer

A medical expert has said it is only a matter of time before a case of coronavirus is confirmed in the UK.

Four people are currently being tested for the deadly virus in Scotland after contracting respiratory symptoms after travelling from China.

More than 440 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in China's Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and officials said at least 17 people have died there.

North Korea has placed a ban on foreign tourists but there have now been cases in the US, Japan and South Korea.

Dr Andrew Freedman, a reader in infectious diseases at Cardiff University, believes it is now “likely” Britain will be dealing with the infection in the upcoming days and weeks.

He said: "This first case to be identified outside of Asia is a worrying but not unexpected development.

Medical staff wear protection suits and fight with the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan (PA)

“It is likely that further cases will be seen in other countries around the world, including the UK and Europe, in the days and weeks to come.

“Although person to person spread of the virus has occurred, including from patients to healthcare workers, it is not clear just how contagious it is.

“This is important in determining the risk of a much larger outbreak developing with spread to people who have not travelled to Wuhan.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock has also said there is an "increased likelihood" of cases of the new coronavirus in the UK, but insisted the risk to the public remains low and the country is "well prepared".

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In a Commons statement, he told MPs: "The chief medical officer has revised the risk to the UK population from 'very low' to 'low' and has concluded that while there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country, we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them."

Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the Medical Research Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said the estimated number of people infected with coronavirus in Wuhan is about 4,000, with a range between 1,000 and 9,700.

Asked whether it was possible the virus had already reached the UK, Professor Ferguson said he could not rule it out.

He said: "We can't rule out that possibility.

Confirmed cases of coronavirus so far (PA)

"Border screening, and in this case, in the UK, alerting the health system is not 100% foolproof – there could be a mild case.

"The UK is not a major destination of visitors travelling out of Wuhan around the world though.

"So I would say it was unlikely, but can't be completely sure."

Prof Ferguson added that the UK would not be able to implement some of the measures China has deployed against outbreaks in the past, including isolating tens of thousands of people.

Experts are set to meet again later to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency over the coronavirus.

Public Health England (PHE) has already upgraded the risk to the UK population from coronavirus from "very low" to “low".

Pedestrians cover their faces with sanitary masks after the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Hong Kong (AP)
A health official scans the body temperature of a passenger as she arrives at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia (AP)

What other measures could be taken?

Cases would have to be diagnosed and isolated as quickly as possible in order to prevent onward transmission, and to ensure what is called contact tracing follow-up, according to Prof Ferguson. This would involve identifying who those individuals have come into contact with. And if not isolating them, tracking them through time - daily or more frequently - to see if they develop symptoms and testing them.

What has been done so far?

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has issued clinical guidance for the detection and diagnosis of Wuhan novel coronavirus and PHE has developed a diagnostic test. The UK is also one of the first countries outside China to have a prototype specific laboratory test for this novel disease.

Airport operational officers are seen using a face mask to prevent coronavirus at Sultan Syarif Kasim II airport in Pekanbaru, Indonesia (Getty)

PHE says clinicians in primary and secondary care have already received advice, covering initial detection and investigation of possible cases, infection prevention and control, and clinical diagnostics.

What is the situation at present?

There are no known cases but enhanced monitoring will be put in place for all direct flights from Wuhan to the UK, the DHSC has said. This includes providing advice to travellers if they feel unwell and what symptoms to look out for.

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