U.S. Will Test for Deadly China Virus at JFK, SFO, LAX Airports

(Bloomberg) -- Passengers flying into three of the busiest U.S. airports from Wuhan, China, or via connecting flights will be screened for a deadly new virus that has sickened dozens in China and already spread in Southeast Asia.

U.S. health and immigration officials will start screening passengers on direct flights from Wuhan for symptoms such as coughs and fever Friday night at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Direct flights to San Francisco International Airport, and connecting flights ending at Los Angeles International Airport, will be added to the screening program on Saturday.

There are expected to be about 5,000 passengers arriving in the next few weeks during the Chinese Lunar New Year, the peak travel time for the 60,000 people who come from Wuhan each year, said Martin Cetron, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s division of global migration and quarantine. The agency has added 100 staff members at the three airports to help conduct the screening.

The agency is taking aggressive action after previous outbreaks of novel viruses from abroad, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS, which emerged in 2003, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, which appeared in 2012. The agency last screened airline passengers during the Ebola outbreak in western Africa from 2014 to 2016.

“We are concerned any time there is a new virus or a new pathogen emerging in a population that hasn’t seen it before,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Because what it means is that the population doesn’t have any existing immunity and we don’t have any specific treatment or vaccines.”

With a rise in screening, Messonnier said it’s highly plausible that there will be at least one case in the U.S. Catching it early will help doctors and public health officials control any risk of it spreading, she said.

The officials acknowledged that it’s far more likely that passengers may have a common cold or influenza than the newly emerging coronavirus, particularly because it’s the middle of the respiratory virus season in the U.S. Public health workers may be able to identify some of the more common ailments within a few hours, though it’s unlikely those travelers would be able to make connecting flights, Cetron said.

Those with suspicious signs and symptoms will be taken to local medical facilities, where they will have to give a sample that can be genetically tested at the CDC’s labs in Atlanta, Messonnier said. The agency is working on another test that could yield a response more quickly, she said.

The outbreak of the new coronavirus in China appears to be linked to an outdoor seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, with most of the 45 patients diagnosed so far reporting ties to the facility, which was recently closed for cleaning. While there have only been two reported deaths, the virus seems to be moving quickly, with four new cases reported in China within the past hour or so, CDC officials said. In addition, two cases have been reported in Thailand and one in Japan, all of whom had traveled to Wuhan.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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