DUBAI: A coronavirus outbreak that has claimed the lives of at least 55 people in China and 10 other countries has not spread to the Middle East, according to government officials.
Although no cases have been detected in any of the GCC countries, governments are taking preventive measures, including mandatory screenings for passengers arriving from cities where infections have been reported.
Scientists have identified the new coronavirus strain as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
Like other coronaviruses, it originates in animals but had not been identified in humans until the outbreak in Wuhan, in central China.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).
As of Sunday, close to 2,000 2019-nCoV cases had been detected globally, with Canada confirming its first patient and Portugal declaring a “suspected” case of infection.
The outbreak in China came at a time where close to 3 billion people were due to travel across the country – the “world’s largest annual human migration” – over a 15-day period, marking the occasion of the Lunar New Year on January 25.
Officials have said passengers arriving from China will be screened for infections as a precautionary measure.
On Sunday, Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, the Saudi Minister of Health, said steps to limit the spread of coronavirus were already in place, adding: “No cases of infection with the new coronavirus have been recorded in the Kingdom yet.”
Separately, Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Disease Prevention and Control (NCDC) has prepared a health guide to deal with suspected cases.
It has provided laboratory tests, set up a mechanism for collecting and transferring sample to its national laboratory and issued advice to passengers going to areas where the disease has appeared.
The Ministry of Health is coordinating with the country’s General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) and has advised those traveling to affected cities to avoid visiting any local markets where livestock is on display or products derived from animals are sold.
The ministry has said it is closely monitoring the epidemiological situation with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other available sources.
In another development, the Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control (Saudi CDC) debunked what it called infection rumors surrounding an Indian nurse working in a hospital in the Kingdom.
Saudi CDC confirmed via Twitter that no 2019-nCoV cases had been detected in the Kingdom, adding that new MERS infections had been reported by the Health Ministry, including three healthcare workers in Abha, in Asir region.
Separately, the UAE’s Health Ministry said on Sunday that no 2019-nCoV case has been reported in the country.
Nevertheless, thermal screening of passengers arriving from China has been introduced in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports to ensure the health and safety of travelers and residents in the country.
Airport authorities are said to be fully complying with the directive issued by the UAE’s Civil Aviation Authority, and also distributing informative booklets to travelers on the nature of the new virus and its symptoms.
Etihad Airways has also issued a circular waving fees for rebooking and cancelation of tickets to and from mainland China.
“Etihad Airways is closely monitoring the outbreak of the new coronavirus in China and coordinating its response with airport and health authorities in Abu Dhabi,” a statement issued by the carrier said.
Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi said it “can assure the community that, to date, no patients have been diagnosed with the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV),” noting that “there are numerous forms of coronaviruses, including more prevalent human coronaviruses, and the majority of these are not considered public health risks.”
Two other GCC countries, Kuwait and Qatar, have begun screening passengers arriving from destinations where coronavirus infections have been reported.
In a statement, Kuwait’s Ministry of Health said: “Airport’s clinics and isolation rooms are well-equipped and thermal cameras have been added to border crossings.”
Infection with 2019-nCoV, which mimics symptoms similar to the common cold, can evolve to pneumonia.
However, medical experts believe the 2019-nCoV is less severe, contagious and deadly than the SARS virus, which first emerged in November 2002 and was contained by July 2003.
The SARS outbreak resulted in 8,098 infection cases and 774 deaths in 17 countries. Both SARS and MERS have no known cure as of today.