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Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye showing a thermal scanner to screen travellers at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Sepang, yesterday. - Bernama
Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye showing a thermal scanner to screen travellers at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Sepang, yesterday. - Bernama

KUALA LUMPUR: ALL eyes will be on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) emergency meeting with Chinese authorities today, which will determine the next steps to be taken to tackle the outbreak of a deadly mysterious severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-like coronavirus.

The outbreak, believed to have originated in Wuhan, has, to date, claimed six lives and infected more than 200 others in China.

The Health Ministry said it would keep a close watch on the outcome of the meeting, which would determine the next course of action for the country.

Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye said additional measures on preventing an outbreak in Malaysia would be announced soon.

He said the 2019-nCOV coronavirus had the potential to turn into a serious infection that might spread to other countries, including Malaysia, if necessary actions were not taken.

“The ministry is on high alert and will announce additional measures as soon as possible.

“We have been screening travellers from Wuhan.

“The ministry is keeping track of the situation, including the sudden surge in cases in China.

“Some cases include places outside Wuhan and there are reports suggesting human-to-human transmission,” he told the New Straits Times.

AFP reported that the WHO’s meeting today would determine whether the outbreak constituted a “public health emergency of international concern” and if so, what should be done to manage it.

The agency has used the rare label only a handful of times, including during the H1N1 — or swine flu — pandemic of 2009 and the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of west Africa from 2014 to 2016.

The Chinese government announced on Tuesday it was classifying the outbreak in the same category as the SARS outbreak, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the disease and the potential to implement quarantine measures on travel.

Should the WHO decide to take this step, it would put the Wuhan virus in the same category as serious epidemics.

Alarms have been raised over the 2019-nCOV’s similarity to the SARS virus.

SARS caused more than 700 deaths in 37 countries in 2002 to 2003.

The 2019-nCOV had its first confirmed cases in Beijing and Shanghai on Monday, with more than a dozen others in southern Guangdong province.

Outside China, four confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus were reported in Thailand, South Korea and Japan.

Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC, reported that a man displaying SARS-like symptoms after visiting China had been quarantined, in what was suspected to be Australia’s first case.

Dr Lee said health authorities detected 61 passengers with high body temperatures between Jan 15 and Jan 20 when they landed at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

“For the same period, we have screened 258,246 passengers and 8,808 crew members from 2,494 flights,” Dr Lee said during a visit to KLIA yesterday.

On what parallels could be drawn with the SARS outbreak, he said the coronavirus also spread like the influenza virus via droplets from coughing and nasal secretions.

Dr Lee added that it was important to prevent patients with such infections from entering Malaysia.

He said he was made to understand that Chinese authorities were screening their travellers at exit points to curb the virus from spreading to other nations.

“We, on the other hand, are screening travellers at entry points.

“If travellers with symptoms are picked up, they will be quarantined and treated immediately.”

On Monday, the Health Ministry announced that response teams at all international entry points and health facilities across Malaysia had been placed on high alert following the outbreak in China, with thermal scanners and health quarantine centres established. --Additional reporting by Kalbana Perimbanayagam

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