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Biosecurity checks for China flights to Australia amid virus epidemic fears

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The risk posed to Australians by a new strain of coronavirus infecting hundreds of people across the world is low, the nation’s chief medical officer says.

 

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The new strain of virus can be transmitted between humans, and the total number of cases in the world stands at 222.

“There is no need for alarm and the risk to the Australian public from this novel coronavirus remains relatively low,” Brendan Murphy told reporters on Tuesday.

“Although, we do need to keep a precautionary and active surveillance of the situation.”

Wuhan, the sprawling capital of central China’s Hubei province, is the epicentre of the coronavirus.

There are three direct flights a week from Wuhan into Sydney.

Each of these flights will now be met by biosecurity staff from Thursday.

“No international travellers have yet been confirmed as having this coronavirus in Australia and we already have well-established existing biosecurity measures at the border,” Professor Murphy said.

Information will be displayed across all other points of entry into Australia to warn people who develop symptoms to seek urgent medical attention.

Australian authorities will also work with the Chinese media to get the message across.

Professor Murphy said screening was reliant on people self reporting.

The virus’ most common symptom is a high fever but Professor Murphy said measures like screening for temperatures had only been partially effective in the past.

“They missed a large number of cases,” he said.

The health department was also working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to consider updating advice for Australians travelling to Wuhan.

He said the current number of confirmed cases was probably an underestimate with confirmed cases in other parts of China, as well as Japan, Thailand and South Korea.

While the United States had already started screening for the virus at airports, Professor Murphy said Australia’s response was proportionate.

“People get frightened and there’s often media hype and that’s why I think it’s important to reassure the public that we are well prepared,” Professor Murphy said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said it was “extremely crucial” to take every possible measure to combat the new coronavirus.

His remarks, cited by state broadcaster CCTV on Monday, came the same day that the country reported a sharp rise in the number of people infected by the novel form of viral pneumonia, including the first cases in the capital.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva announced that it will convene a meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak constitutes a health emergency of international concern.

Declaring such an emergency would amount to a call for global vigilance, cooperation and funding to stem the virus.

A high-level team of experts from China’s National Health Commission were reported as saying that two cases of person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus, with symptoms including fever and problems breathing, occurred in the south-eastern province Guangdong.

Researchers had assumed that the disease jumped from animals to humans, but a recent rise in cases – now at around 220, which represents an overnight tripling in the number of known cases – had pointed to person-to-person transmission as well.

The outbreak comes as the country enters its busiest travel period, when millions board trains and planes for the Lunar New Year holidays.

“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” President Xi said, according to CCTV.

“Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first.”

Health authorities in the central city of Wuhan, where the viral pneumonia appears to have originated, said an additional 136 cases have been confirmed in the city, which now has a total of 198 infected patients. As of the weekend, a third patient had died.

Five individuals in Beijing and 14 in southern China’s Guangdong province have also been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, state broadcaster CCTV reported on Monday evening.

A total of seven suspected cases have been found in other parts of the country, including in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the southwest and in Shanghai.

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