As the “Wuhan pneumonia,” resulting from new coronavirus spreads rapidly, Korean medical workers are on high alert as the source and path of the new infectious disease is unclear.
The fact that the disease is hard to diagnose as it has similar symptoms as the common cold is also worrisome for local physicians.
According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), there were 581 patients diagnosed with new coronavirus – 571 in China, four in Thailand, one each in Japan, Taiwan, the U.S., Hong Kong, and South Korea – as of Thursday. Two more cases were confirmed as of Friday morning, one in Japan and the other in South Korea.
However, according to the China National Health Commission, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in mainland China increased to 639 and 422 suspected cases, as of 11:54 pm on Friday. The death toll has also risen to 25.
Although an increasing number of people are being infected with the new coronavirus, the source and the path of infection is still evident.
Initially, some scientists analyzed that the new coronavirus had spread from bats like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). However, the Journal of Medical Virology published a paper that the host is snakes.
Despite various theories, it is still unclear what the exact source of the infection is. Moreover, as the path of infection is not clear, it is also not sure, either, how easily the disease can be infected.
“Coronavirus, which was prevalent in the animals, seems to be spreading to humans after causing genetic mutations and until now,” said Professor Lee Jae-gap of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Gangnam Hallym University Medical Center. “SARS had a mortality rate of 9 to 10 percent and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), 35 percent. To date, the new coronavirus mortality rate is lower but more fluid.”
While opinions about the disseminating power of the new coronavirus are divided, based on the announcement made by China, the infectivity of the new coronavirus seems to be similar to that of MERS, Lee added.
Due to the lack of information, however, the anxiety felt by medical professionals is great. Doctors are voicing concerns that the new coronavirus has spread during the winter period when the prevalence of the common cold is high. Many doctors are stating that this is a problem as it is not easy to distinguish between coronavirus and common influenza.
“Swine flu spread in summer and MERS spread from May, but the current coronavirus started in the winter and has a similar symptom to that of the common cold,” a local hospital director said to Korea Biomedical Review, asking to remain anonymous. “About 40 percent of the patients who come to the emergency room in the winter suffer from the common cold.”
Therefore, even if a patient with new coronavirus comes to the emergency room, the symptoms cannot be easily distinguished, he added.
The hospital director stressed that the situation would become more severe if even one of the patients who visited the hospital for cold symptoms is later diagnosed with the Wuhan coronavirus.
“There is no proper way to screen patients with the new coronavirus, as the hospital doesn’t have the time and resources to conduct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for all patients with cold symptoms, and it takes time to check everyone’s travel history,” the manager said.
Some hospitals are also worrying that most of the caregivers working at the hospital are Korean-Chinese who came to Korea to earn money. The hospitals fear that they may return to the hospital as the carriers of the disease after visiting their homes during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
“A lot of ethnic Koreans living in China are working in hospitals as caregivers,” a hospital CEO said. “If they or their family get infected by the coronavirus after visiting their homes during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, it may collapse our defenses.”
The health authorities said that it would provide side-by-side support to help medical institutions respond appropriately.
To prevent and manage the influx of new coronavirus in Korea, the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service has been providing real-time information on entrants of new coronavirus infection areas to medical institutions through the Drug Utilization Review (DUR).
KCDC also plans to expand the fast diagnostic test, which can test Wuhan coronavirus within 24 hours, to 17 health research institutes to cities and provinces nationwide and plans to build a similar system at private medical institutions in early February.