Mainland authorities have acknowledged for the first time that a new virus that has infected at least 41 people in Wuhan, may be spreading between humans, although they say the possibility of this is low.
While preliminary investigations indicate that most of the patients had worked at or visited a particular wet market, one woman may have contracted the virus from her husband, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said in a public notice.
The commission said the husband, who fell ill first, worked at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Meanwhile, the wife said she hasn't had any exposure to the market.
The head of communicable diseases at the Centre for Health Protection, Chuang Shuk-kwan, who returned to Hong Kong on Tuesday from a visit to Wuhan, where mainland officials briefed them on the outbreak, said it's possible that the husband brought home food from the market that then infected his wife. But because the wife did not exhibit symptoms until days after her husband, it's also possible that he infected her.
The Under secretary for Food and Health, Chui Tak-yi, said the message they received from their mainland counterparts is that human-to-human transmission is possible, though there's yet to be any concrete evidence of this.
“They could not find any definitive evidence of human-to-human transmission although they could not exclude the possibility of limited human-to-human transmission… and this is their conclusion at this stage”, he said.
Local health authorities added that based on what they observed and heard in Wuhan, the disease control measures currently being undertaken in Hong Kong should be effective in warding off the disease.
Meanwhile, health authorities said they've received 5 more patients who have fallen ill after visiting Wuhan, bringing the total of suspected cases in Hong Kong since late December to 76.
The officials did not respond to questions why there was no report of suspected cases from any other region on the mainland. Dozens of people were isolated in Hong Kong when they fell ill as they had visited Wuhan recently. But no cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported so far.
Thailand reported one case of the new virus while South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Macau also had reported suspected cases.
The latest revelation is significant because viruses that can be passed between humans can be much more easily spread among the population, as was the case during the deadly 2003 Sars outbreak that infected thousands across the globe and killed 299 people in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Chuang Shuk-kwan also revealed for the first time that the majority of the patients in Wuhan were more closely linked to the seafood section of the wet market at ‘ground zero’ of the outbreak – rather than the section that sells game meat.
Samples of the virus that were found in the environment also came from the seafood section.
Prominent epidemiologists like Hong Kong University expert Yuen Kwok-yung had previously said the disease is likely to have originated from bats.
The World Health Organisation has so far said there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is being spread between people, although the acting head of its emerging diseases unit, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, has been reported as telling a Geneva news briefing that there has been “limited” human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, mainly small clusters in families.
Her comments – later contradicted by a WHO spokesman – is consistent with the new picture painted by the Hong Kong health officials. (Additional reporting by AP)
Last updated: 2020-01-15 HKT 23:30