No screening for new Sars-like virus at UK airports – yet

Mark Townsend and Robin McKie
Photograph: Getty Images

Health officials have ruled out introducing screening for passengers at UK airports, despite mounting fears over a deadly new virus from China. Three big US airports yesterday announced they would introduce screening.

Related: Expert questions effectiveness of coronavirus airport screening

Experts warned that the outbreak of the Sars-like virus is likely to be on a larger scale than officially admitted. But Public Health England and the country’s chief medical officer decided that such measures were not yet required in the UK.

The risk to the country is described as “very low”, although officials stressed that they were monitoring events in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the disease has killed at least two and infected a further 45. However, scientists at the Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis in London believe the number of cases in Wuhan could be closer to 1,700.

Jeremy Farrar, an expert on emerging diseases, said: “We are starting to hear of more cases in China and other countries, and it is likely that there will be many more.”

Scientists say the virus is a member of the coronavirus family, six members of which are known to infect humans; this would be the seventh.

Mild coronaviruses cause the common cold, but more deadly strains can trigger severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed nearly 800 of the 8,000 people infected in an outbreak in 2002. Fears this virus could spread similarly have risen as China prepares to celebrate its new year, with hundreds of millions of people moving around the country and visiting family overseas. Farrar said: “Wuhan is a major hub, and with travel a huge part of Chinese new year, the concern must remain high.”

New York’s JFK airport, and San Francisco and Los Angeles international airports have started to screen passengers arriving from Wuhan. Chinese authorities introduced exit-screening on flights leaving Wuhan, and authorities in Hong Kong are running temperature checks for travellers from the mainland.

Thailand – which has confirmed cases of the virus – announced that it was already screening passengers arriving in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket, and would soon introduce controls in the beach resort of Krabi. Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines have all stepped up screening as well.

The outbreak was still spreading, said Mike Turner of the Wellcome Trust, adding: “We are more concerned than three days ago. One consequence of a more connected world is that outbreaks have the potential to spread internationally much more rapidly.” But Farrar said that global measures to fight emerging diseases have improved significantly. “The speed with which this virus has been identified, and the sharing of that information by China, has been amazing – a testament to the changes in public health in China since Sars, and the global coordination through the World Health Organisation. That has meant that the world is much better prepared to identify and treat patients.”

The Foreign Office said it had updated its travel advice for the Wuhan region, but guidance on visiting China remains unchanged. Most people with the infection are believed to have contracted it at a market that sells seafood and meat in Wuhan. “It is probable that we are looking at patients being affected over a number of days from multiple animal sources and with some degree of human-to-human transmission,” said Farrar.