ISLAMABAD /WUHAN/ ABU DHABI: While Pakistan itself remains protected so far, four of its students studying in various institutions in Wuhan city are confirmed to have been infected with Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), the new Viral infection that originated from China and has spread to 18 countries, with 6,052 confirmed cases and 182 deaths as of january 30.
Addressing a press conference here on Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said there is a marked improvement in the condition of the four Pakistani students, and there is hope that they will soon recover. “The Government of Pakistan and our Embassy in China are in touch with the affected students and their families. The PM has instructed me to assure the families of the students that they were receiving the best possible medical treatment and that we are taking care of them like our own children. Coordinated efforts are in place to ensure that the 28,000 plus Pakistani community in China — their majority being students — remain safe. We are also fully cognizant of the situation of the 500 Pakistani students studying in Wuhan,” Dr. Zafar assured.
Advising the media to uphold confidentiality and to refrain from revealing the identity of the affected students and their families even if they obtain access to such personal information, Dr Zafar pleaded, “Please do not probe even if you get hold of any confidential information. Responsible journalism demands that you refrain from exposing their identities.”
Dr Zafar repeated that there is no confirmed case of 2019-nCoV in Pakistan so far. “We have four suspected cases under observation; their samples have been sent for testing and analysis. However, their stable condition gives me the confidence to state with a great measure of certainty that none of them is a confirmed 2019-nCoV case,” he claimed.
He added that the country’s top leadership including the prime minister, as well as the cabinet, the Ministry of Health, the Pakistan Army, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), and all relevant ministries and stakeholders are working in coordination to achieve optimal preparedness and response.
Dr Zafar informed that 2019-nCoV has a low mortality rate and that 97 percent of the cases tend to recover. He said all 132 deaths from so far have occurred in China, where 99 percent of the cases are concentrated. The SAPM said China is being acclaimed worldwide for taking extraordinary public health measures to contain the infection within Wuhan.
Quoting two examples, Dr Zafar said, “This city of 60 million people has been quarantined; nobody can enter or leave the city. This is the biggest and boldest measure in the history of public health, and the entire international community including Pakistan deeply appreciates the manner in which the Chinese government is trying to prevent further exportation of the virus.”
Students stranded in Wuhan, however, differ. In a video message circulating on the social media, a Wuhan-based Pakistani student has appealed to the government of Pakistan to expedite evacuation of the 500 Pakistani students studying in Wuhan, now that their universities have also sent out emails, advising them to leave for their respective countries. “When we first requested our government and the Embassy for evacuation, we were told to cooperate with the Chinese government. However, the situation here is worsening with every passing day. We want to get out of here. Our families and relatives are concerned and want us back in Pakistan. Even our universities have advised us to leave. Please do something for us before we die,” the student appealed.
In another video, seven Pakistani students based in Wuhan have asked the government not to wait till more Pakistani students are attacked by the deadly virus. “Four Pakistani students have already been exposed to the virus. Please help us out of here. If you (the government) do not have the requisite funds, we can pay for our own tickets. Please just make arrangements for our return,” one of them said.
Dr. Zafar also appreciated the Chinese government for enforcing new regulations and ensuring compliance. “To quote one instance, Chinese citizens wanting to travel abroad are being kept under observation for 14 days (incubation period of the virus), and only in case of no symptoms are they allowed to embark on their journeys. This is again a superb initiative,” he stated. Pakistan, being China’s neighbour, faces a high risk of cross-border virus transmission. In this context, Dr Zafar recounted some of the measures being taken in compliance with the International Health Regulations (IHR-2005). He said, the federal cabinet was briefed on the rapidly evolving situation on January 28. The Directorate of the Ministry dealing with airport and port health services is maintaining strict vigilance at the Points of Entry; travelers entering the country from affected areas are being screened through thermo scanners and thermo guns, more of which are being arranged to bolster the screening process.
In this context, public health experts believe that the government should do more than mere screening of travelers. One of them suggested that since the virus can survive at low temperatures for 28 days, travelers arriving from these countries should be quarantined for 28 days in a detached health facility. “We all know there is no vaccine and no specific treatment for this disease, and that only a symptomatic treatment is possible. Coronavirus is transmitted via droplets so it can easily be transmitted from one person to another. Even if we keep exposed cases in separate rooms within tertiary care hospitals for monitoring purposes, there are still chances of further spread of the virus. So like China, Pakistan too needs a totally detached quarantine facility-cum-hospital, solely for monitoring suspect cases of Novel Coronavirus,” he said.
The media was told that while the National Institute of Health has issued three advisories on 2019-nCoV, and that the Novel Coronavirus Emergency Operations Centre established within the Ministry of Health is meeting every 48 hours to review developments. Furthermore, a Novel Coronavirus Emergency Core Committee comprising 10 health specialists has been constituted; this committee meets every day for monitoring and analysis of the situation. A helpline will also be activated within the next couple of days. Dr Zafar added that a technical consultation with global experts on infectious diseases was convened to seek guidance on international best practices, and an Inter-Provincial Coordination Meeting was held on January 28 to harmonize nationwide efforts in terms of preparedness.
The Novel Coronavirus is a viral infection caused by a newly discovered virus; it is the fifth virus of the known Coronavirus family. The virus has previously manifested in the shape of diseases like SARS and MERS. It leads to lower respiratory tract infection, which takes the shape of pneumonia; it is intense in severity and has no specific symptoms, making its diagnosis difficult. “Unless the virus is isolated and tested in a laboratory, a person cannot be confirmed to be having Novel Coronavirus. The general symptoms are akin to those experienced in any other viral infection and include headache, fever, cough, and difficulty in breathing. Patients with Novel Coronavirus started emerging in China during December 2019; on January 7, 2020, Chinese researchers isolated the virus causing the infection and gave it a name. All close contacts of a patient suffering from Novel Coronavirus are at risk of contracting the infection,” Dr Zafar concluded.
Meanwhile Pakistani students in China said Wednesday they were terrified and were “being kept in one room” after four others had been tested for coronavirus amid a hysteria that has spread throughout the world. Two of them had earlier shared videos of appeals for assistance with Geo News. The Geo News has also learned that the condition of one of the Pakistani students in China had worsened and her CT scan was carried out after collecting contributions worth 700 yuan in total. The student also suffers from respiratory issues.
Speaking to Geo News, one student — whose identity was protected — said: “We are very stressed and upset mentally. We’re being kept in one room and we’re scared and frightened. The virus is spreading day by day so for God’s sake, help us. We’re appealing repeatedly [and] we’re requesting the embassy repeatedly but the embassy staff told us, ‘You should have followed the rules in China, we can’t do anything for you, just sit in your room’. We have 105 students in our university and we have some students’ families and kids as well, some kids are aged six. We’re more upset because children are more susceptible to the disease.” The student added that no student of the Wuhan University had tested positive but that “We’re at risk [because] we go outside to buy food so there’s danger. Just today, four Pakistani students in another university near Wuhan University were tested positive so we’re extremely scared, we’re given food at one place but still have to go out for other basic necessities,” the student added.
Meanwhile, airlines began suspending flights to and from China on Wednesday as the World Health Organisation called an urgent meeting over whether a viral epidemic that has killed 132 people and infected around 6,000 others should be declared a global health emergency. The flight suspensions came as some countries began airlifts of their nationals trapped in Wuhan, the quarantined Chinese city of 11 million people at the centre of the epidemic. Among 206 Japanese nationals who returned home Wednesday, 12 were hospitalised for tests after they reported they felt unwell or showed flu-like symptoms.
A growing number of governments — including the United States, Britain and Germany — have advised their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China. China has urged its own citizens to delay trips abroad, with at least 18 countries have confirmed cases of the disease. In Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organisation “deeply regrets” its reports last week that referred to the global risk of the outbreak as “moderate” instead of “high”. A meeting of WHO experts could on Thursday upgraded it further. “I have decided to reconvene the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the new #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) tomorrow,” Tedros said on Twitter.
The British Airways was the first major airline to announce a suspension of flights to and from China, citing the travel advice of the foreign office. It was followed by German flag carrier Lufthansa, one of Europe´s largest airlines, which said all flights to mainland China would be suspended until February 9. The Swiss and Austrian Airlines also followed suit. Indonesia´s Lion Air Group, Southeast Asia´s biggest carrier by fleet size, said it would halt services to and from China from Saturday, and airlines from Myanmar and Nepal followed suit. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has reduced flights, citing low demand and the city government´s response plan to the virus. Kazakhstan, an important China trade partner, stopped issuing visas to Chinese citizens and said it would halt cross-border passenger train traffic and suspend flights. In one of the most dramatic measures, the tiny Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea announced that no travellers from Asia would be allowed in.
China has taken extraordinary measures to try and stop the disease from spreading, including a ban on tour groups traveling overseas, suspending schools and extending the Lunar New Year holiday. Most street traffic in and around Wuhan has been banned in an unprecedented quarantine effort, leaving more than 50 million people shuttered in their homes. “This is the first day since the lockdown that I´ve had to go out,” a man in his 50s said on the mostly deserted streets of the industrial city on Wednesday. “I have no choice because I need to buy food.”
Countries have scrambled to get their citizens out of Wuhan safely, but have faced logistical, medical and bureaucratic hurdles. A US charter flight from Wuhan with about 210 Americans on board — including consulate staff — was met at a California military base on Wednesday by emergency vehicles with flashing lights and personnel in white biological hazard suits. The evacuees will be monitored for symptoms and sent to local hospitals if they are found to be ill, the US defense department said.
Some 250 French citizens and 100 other Europeans will be flown out of Wuhan on board two French planes this week. The Italian government said it would send an aircraft on Thursday. Up to 70 Italians are reportedly in Wuhan. France said it would keep its returnees in a holding facility in Paris for 14 days — the estimated incubation period for the virus. Australia plans to house any citizens evacuated on an island normally used to detain asylum seekers.
The number of confirmed cases across China climbed to 5,974, while the death toll nationwide jumped to 132. The scale of the deepening crisis was emphasised with the total number of infections on the Chinese mainland exceeding that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-03. But the death toll is so far much lower than SARS, which claimed nearly 800 lives around the world — with most fatalities in mainland China and Hong Kong. The virus is believed to have originated in a wild-animal market in Wuhan, where it jumped to humans before spreading across the country as the peak travel period for New Year festivities got underway.
The virus has rattled global markets and started to dent an already-slowing Chinese economy. Japanese automaker Toyota said it would keep its plants in China closed until at least February 9. Tech giant Foxconn said Wednesday that Taiwan staff at its vast network of factories in China do not need to return to work until mid-February, a move likely to impact global supply chains for tech companies that rely on the Taiwan company to manufacture everything from iPhones to flat-screen TVs and laptops. The virus has also disrupted sporting events, with a women´s football Olympic qualifier event moved from Wuhan to Australia. Despite the precaution, the Chinese team was quarantined in a Brisbane hotel after arriving for the competition, according to Australian media. “The whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday confirmed the first case of the deadly coronavirus from China, according to the Health Ministry. The case was confirmed of an individual from a family coming from Wuhan, China, the ministry said asserting required medical measures were taken. The virus has also spread to Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the US, Singapore, France, Vietnam, and Canada.