Wuhan pneumonia: Hong Kong requests for genetic information from mainland China on mystery virus

Phila Siu

Hong Kong has requested that mainland China provide genetic information on the mystery virus behind the Wuhan pneumonia outbreak, for local experts to devise more targeted tests to identify infections.

The announcement was made on Thursday after mainland authorities earlier in the day said laboratory tests had determined the disease to be of a new coronavirus strain, and that its entire genome sequence had been mapped out.

Coronaviruses cause diseases varying in severity, from the common cold to the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) that killed 299 people in Hong Kong in 2003.

So far, the city’s public hospitals have received a total of 48 patients who showed fever and the respiratory symptoms of pneumonia after returning from Wuhan, though 25 have been cleared and discharged. Some 10 suspected cases were reported between noon on Wednesday and noon on Thursday, including that of an 11-month-old girl and a man aged 66.

“The Department of Health has contacted the National Health Commission … to ask if they can give us the genetic sequencing of the novel coronavirus so that we can have more targeted and accurate tests for suspected patients,” said Wong Ka-hing, controller of the Centre for Health Protection (CHP).

According to Professor Yuen Kwok-yung from the University of Hong Kong, who spoke in the same press conference as Wong, the city already has tests that can identify patients with the Wuhan strain, even without the genetic sequence.

But with the additional information, the diagnostic time could be cut from the current six-to-eight hours, to only two-to-three hours, Yuen said.

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He added that existing drugs used to fight Sars and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) were thought to be effective in combating the Wuhan strain, as he suspected that it belonged to the same subgroup of the two.

But he said he could not be sure until after clinical testing on such drugs.

Sars has killed more than 700 people worldwide and Mers has caused more than 850 deaths globally since 2012.

Yuen said he believed it was likely the new virus came from bats, which passed it on to game animals, and then to humans.

(From left) Professor Hui Shu-cheong, chairman of CHP’s scientific committee on emerging and zoonotic diseases; Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller of the Centre for Health Protection; and Professor Yuen Kwok-yung from HKU. Photo: Winson Wong

At the same briefing, Chinese University’s Professor Hui Shu-cheong, who chairs the CHP’s scientific committee on emerging and zoonotic diseases, said there was so far no evidence that the new virus could be transmitted between humans, but it was too early to make a conclusion.

Both Yuen and Hui appealed for calm as the new virus was not as powerful as Sars. Hui urged Hongkongers not to eat game meat.

In a separate press conference, Professor Chen Sheng, associate dean of City University’s department of infectious diseases and public health, also said the Wuhan virus did not appear as strong as Sars, because no one had died and no medical staff had been infected.

The World Health Organisation on Thursday quoted the Chinese government as saying that the Wuhan virus “does not readily transmit” between people. Sars can spread through respiratory droplets from carriers.

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