Health experts on alert over virus risk

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 3:11am

Hongkongers could be at risk from a newly identified coronavirus, local experts warn.

Although it has been confirmed different from the virus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), the new virus could still turn into a global health threat if easily transmitted by humans, they said.

Both Sars and the new coronavirus belong to the same virus family and cause respiratory infections. But with too few cases as yet, specific symptoms of the new bug have not been identified.

However, the Health Department is ready to implement Sars-like control measures to prevent a local outbreak. These include locating and tracking anyone with whom a patient had close contact, and quarantining hotels or homes if necessary.

"If the virus appears in Hong Kong, it is most likely to be carried in by travellers," Centre for Health Protection controller Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai said.

"I cannot rule out the possibility that there is risk [of a local outbreak] in Hong Kong, but according to the trend now, the likelihood is not too high.

"Had it been proved transmissible through human-to-human contact, the seriousness of a possible epidemic occurring might be increased, but it also depends whether it is accompanied by serious symptoms. If it only produces mild, flu-like symptoms, it will not be threatening."

Professor Patrick Woo Chiu-yat, head of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, said Sars and the new virus were "totally different things", as they belonged to two different groups within the coronavirus family.

"The new virus is closer to a bat virus we have found in Hong Kong's bats," he said.

Dr Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist from the University of Hong Kong, said the public "need not be too worried about another epidemic like Sars".

"Now we have the tests. We're in a totally different world from back in 2003," he said, adding that there had been many advances in viral identification technology.