Health authorities on Monday identified a pneumonia case caused by a previously unknown virus in Thailand — the first known infection outside of China, where the virus is thought to have begun spreading last month.
The patient is a Chinese tourist from Wuhan, the city where the outbreak is occurring, health officials said. Thai authorities identified her as a 61-year-old woman who was recovering at a hospital in Nonthaburi province, the Bangkok Post reported.
Chinese authorities have been moving quickly to control the spread of the virus, and nearby countries have been ramping up surveillance efforts and isolating people who develop respiratory infections after travel to Wuhan. But the new infection signifies how challenging containing a virus can be.
In a statement Monday, the World Health Organization said: “The possibility of cases being identified in other countries was not unexpected, and reinforces why WHO calls for on-going active monitoring and preparedness in other countries.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is consulting with members of the organization’s emergency committee and could call for a meeting of the committee, WHO said.
Late last week, Chinese researchers made public the genetic sequence of the virus, which they determined to be a coronavirus, a group that also includes SARS and MERS. Knowing the sequence allows health officials to differentiate respiratory infections caused by the novel coronavirus versus those caused by other viruses — a key step particularly during flu season.
Thai health authorities reported that the woman was confirmed to be infected by the coronavirus, and that 16 people who were close to the woman on her flight were examined and did not show signs of the virus, according to the Bangkok Post.
The then-unexplained pneumonia cases started appearing in Wuhan — a city 700 miles south of Beijing — on Dec. 12. They attracted global attention in part because of the similarities of the cases to the SARS outbreak in 2003, when that virus went on to spread from China to Hong Kong and then to Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, and Toronto, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing nearly 800.
In a statement Monday, Wuhan health officials reported 41 infections from the coronavirus — the same figure as late last week, when they said they had not confirmed any new infections since Jan. 3. One patient — a 61-year-old man with other health problems — died last week, while seven patients have been discharged from the hospital and six patients remain in critical condition.
Coronaviruses originate in bats but can infect a number of animals, and from there jump to humans. The Wuhan outbreak has been linked to a large seafood market that also sells the meat of exotic animals. The market was closed Jan. 1.
Health authorities in Wuhan have said they have not identified any human transmission of the virus, meaning that each case would have come from the person being exposed to the virus from an animal. Outside experts have noted, however, that it can be very difficult to confirm person-to-person spread at this point in the outbreak.
In Wuhan, health authorities have been following 763 close contacts of the people who were infected, including more than 400 health workers, but have not identified any cases among them.