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‘No cause for alarm’ in Australia as new coronavirus cases emerge in China

Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in the spread and control of infectious diseases, said health officials were “operating in the dark to a certain degree” because it was unclear exactly how the virus was spreading.

The new virus was initially reported to have only come from a fish market in Wuhan, which has since been closed, but several patients said they had not visited the market.

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“What we don’t know about this virus is if it’s achieved limited human to human transmission, but there’s no evidence of widespread human to human transmission, otherwise we’d be seeing a large number of cases far beyond what we’ve currently got,” said Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott, from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

While he said the jump in cases was “a bit alarming”, more people were becoming aware of the symptoms of the virus so more suspected cases were being identified and then confirmed with laboratory testing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said much remained to be learnt about the new virus 2019-nCoV, including the clinical symptoms of the disease and exactly how far it has spread. The source of the virus also remains unknown.

On Friday, the US said it would begin screening all passengers travelling from Wuhan. However Professor Murphy said Australia already has “well established mechanisms” in place to respond to sick travellers.

He said under Australian legislation airlines had to report any travellers who were showing signs of an infectious disease, and planes carrying those passengers would be met by biosecurity officials who would then take any necessary action which could include a hospital referral.

“The World Health Organisation position does not currently recommend any travel advisory for China, or additional measures at airports beyond our established mechanisms,” he said, noting all passengers leaving Wuhan’s Tianhe international airport were being screened.

Given there are direct flights from Wuhan to Sydney, Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott said the ideal situation would be to make all those travellers fill out a questionnaire about their health symptoms on arrival and provide them with information about who to contact in the event symptoms appear later.

“With these viruses, symptoms may not develop for 72 hours or more after they’ve arrived,” he said.

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“Do as much border screening as you can but really it’s making sure people have information that in the event they do become sick, they know where to go to get help.”

On January 10, hospitals and health centres in NSW and Victoria were alerted to the pneumonia cluster in Wuhan, with clinicians warned to look out for respiratory symptoms or fever in people who had been in Wuhan within 14 days of first having symptoms.

A NSW Health spokesman said health workers have also been issued precautionary advice on actions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus through “careful infection control measures”.

“NSW Health has developed and exercised a range of procedures for case finding, diagnosis, and contact tracing for high consequence infectious diseases … should they occur in NSW.”

Professor Murphy said the federal Department of Health was working closely with state and territory chief health officers, and they would be meeting early this week “to further discuss the recent developments with this virus”.

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