U.S. health officials announced Friday that the United States will begin screening airline passengers arriving from central China for signs of a new virus outbreak that has killed two people and sickened dozens of others.
Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the screenings will take place at airports in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, and will focus on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the heart of the outbreak.
A CDC spokesman, Scott Pauley, told VOA that only people traveling from Wuhan would be screened at this time.
Chinese health officials say many of those who became sick from the virus worked at or visited a food market in the suburbs of Wuhan. Three cases have been detected outside China — two in Thailand and one in Japan – with health officials saying those patients had visited Wuhan prior to becoming sick.
Health authorities have identified the virus as a new type of coronavirus, part of a large family of viruses that includes the common cold as well as the more serious illness SARS. Scientists say the new virus strain appears most similar to SARS, but say it seems to be weaker than that disease.
Two people in China have died from the mysterious virus and 45 others have been infected in Wuhan and nearly 50 have been infected worldwide. Chinese officials say five people remain in serious condition.
The CDC says upon arrival in the United States, travelers from Wuhan will answer a health questionnaire and have their temperatures taken for signs of illness. Those who are determined to be at risk of the virus will be taken to a nearby hospital and isolated for further assessment.
CDC officials told reporters during a conference call Friday that they expect more cases will be reported outside of China. They said the risk of the virus to the American public is low, but said they want to take proper precautions.
Health officials believe the virus spread in China from animals to humans. It is not clear if the virus is now capable of human-to-human transmission, but CDC officials say there are some indications that people may be able to spread the virus in a limited way. Scientists say that it is also possible that the virus could mutate to become more dangerous.
At least a half-dozen countries in Asia have also started health screenings for incoming airline passengers from central China.
This time of year is one of the busiest travel seasons in China, with people flying both to and from the country to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Pauley said the CDC anticipates a higher number of Chinese travelers to the United States for the New Year and has factored this into its planning.
China said it has increased disinfection efforts in major transportation hubs to help ensure the virus does not spread. Wuhan is a main hub in China’s railway network.
A State Department spokesman said the United States is closely monitoring the outbreak in China as well as actively working with governments across the region to combat spread of the virus.
The World Health Organization is warning that a wider outbreak of the virus is possible and has given guidance to hospitals worldwide. However, in a statement Thursday, the WHO said that it does not recommend instituting any trade or travel restrictions on China at this time.
The most common symptoms of the newly identified virus are fever, cough and difficulty breathing.
VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.