A man in Washington state has been diagnosed with a novel infection racing through China, the first time someone in the United States has been confirmed to have the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

The man, who in his 30s, had recently traveled to Wuhan, China, which is where the outbreak is believed to have begun, officials said. He is currently listed in good condition.

The U.S. is the fifth country outside of China to report cases of the virus, provisionally known as 2019-nCoV. Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have picked up a handful of cases, all in people who had recently been in Wuhan.

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Also on Tuesday, the World Health Organization on Tuesday raised the possibility that the new virus may be transmitting in an ongoing, sustained manner between people — which, if confirmed, would make it significantly more difficult to stop.

The agency’s Western Pacific Regional office, which covers China and neighboring countries, said on Twitter that new information “suggests there may now be sustained human-to-human transmission” — but cautioned that more “information and analysis” are needed before making that conclusion.

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A committee of experts will meet Wednesday to advise WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on whether to declare the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern — a PHEIC in global health parlance.

Chinese authorities, who first alerted the world to the existence of the outbreak on Dec. 31, have diagnosed nearly 300 cases to date. An update from the WHO said that of 278 cases reported as of Jan. 20, 51 were severely ill, 12 were in critical condition and six had died.

The CDC announced last week it would begin to screen passengers returning from Wuhan at three airports: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and John F. Kennedy in New York. On Tuesday, CDC officials said two more airports — Atlanta and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport — would be added to that list.

Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s center of quarantine and global migration, said that as cases in China started to increase rapidly over the weekend, CDC alerted the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation that all flights from Wuhan to the United States should be funneled through the five airports, where arriving passengers will have their temperatures taken for sign of illness.

“This idea of funneling means redirecting, reissuing tickets so all the arriving passengers from Wuhan would come into the airports that we can surge this capacity at,” Cetron said, adding other international airports are distributing information for passengers in English and Mandarin.

The Washington state man arrived back in the United States on Jan. 15, two days before the airport screening began. He became ill after his return and contacted his doctor on Jan. 19, informing the physician that he had recently traveled to Wuhan.

A sample from the man was flown to the CDC in Atlanta. The next day — Monday — testing at the agency confirmed that this was the first U.S. case. He is being held in isolation at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., with what was described as a mild case of pneumonia.

Tracing of people who have been in contact with the man began Tuesday, said Dr. John Wiesman, Washington’s secretary of health. The CDC has sent a team of experts to Washington to help with the investigation.

In announcing the screening plan last week, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said she expected the United States would see cases. She reiterated that caution on Tuesday.

“This is an evolving situation and … we do expect additional cases in the United States and globally,” Messonnier said. “The confirmation that human-to-human spread with this virus is occurring in Asia certainly raises our level of concern. But we continue to believe the risk of this novel coronavirus to the American public at large remains low at this time.”

Andrew Joseph contributed reporting.

  • To be serious about curbing human-to-human spread of this sinister virus, all inter-country traffic must be vigorously limited. Until more is known about the spread mechanism and viral origin. And all institutions capable of such studies must step up to this plate. Anyone in the Chinese Lunar Year celebrations must also take the quarantaine consequences. The world should be wise enough to avoid a SARS-type repeat.

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