The latest figures from China's National Health Commission show infections of the new Wuhan coronavirus are continuing to pile up, spreading to more cities in the country and abroad as travel for the Lunar New Year festival goes into high gear. Meanwhile, diagnostics companies are rushing to have test kits ready.
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An estimated 440 people are now infected with the deadly coronavirus 2019-nCoV across China, with the number of deaths rising to nine, as the virus continues to spread.
An emergency meeting will be convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) today in Geneva to determine whether the 2019-nCoV outbreak constitutes a global health emergency.
Many countries in Asia and as far away as the US have stepped up screening measures at airports for incoming travelers in efforts to stem the outbreak. North Korea has also closed its borders to all tourists.
Since the first reported case on 31 December, 2019-nCoV has spread from central Wuhan to the megacities of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen and other Chinese cities, and isolated cases have recently made their way to other Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea and Thailand, as well as the US.
On 20 January, the Chinese government officially designated 2019-nCov as a Category 2 infectious disease and started taking measures to prevent and control it as a Category 1 infectious condition, meaning that a mandatory quarantine may be required by the government.
The WHO says that China is sharing the genetic sequence of the new virus, which will be used by other countries to develop specific diagnostic kits.
The spread of the virus has once again put China in the forefront of a battle against a novel and deadly outbreak, following on from the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2002.
Diagnostics Makers Step Up
So far, the responses from health companies to the emerging outbreak have largely focused on diagnosis; there is no treatment currently. Several companies, including genome sequencing firm BGI Genomics Co. Ltd., have rushed to develop test kits for medical facilities to detect the viral infection.
Chinese medical experts are suggesting that early detection, diagnosis and quarantine will be key. Zhong Nanshan, a physician from Guangzhou Hospital and well-known for his expertise in respiratory diseases, said the new Wuhan and Guangdong cases show increasing person-to-person transmission. The massive movement of travelers during the holiday period adds another layer of complexity and people should take precautions and avoid large crowds, he added.
Among diagnostics companies, large players such as BGI and Chinese firm Dian Diagnostics are rushing to have their testing kits ready for hospital lab use, although none seem to have been granted formal approvals from the Chinese National Medical Products Administration.
Large companies aside, smaller players are also emerging to seize the opportunity. Shenxiang Bio for one announced a rapid diagnostic kit that can detect the 2019-nCoV virus in as little as 30 minutes.
Challenges of how to address the unique challenges of detecting a new, unstudied virus include:
> Because the virus is new, the diagnostic characteristics have not been identified;
> Diagnostics developers need a sequence of the virus that is long enough to avoid false positives (as all viruses have GACT combinations, developers need a sequence that is unique to the virus being detected);
> Diagnostics developers need a sequence of the virus that is short enough to avoid false negatives; and
> A new virus makes it more difficult to diagnose, treat and even quarantine in a timely manner.