Asian governments are stepping up precautionary measures to prevent an outbreak of a mysterious illness after Chinese health authorities reported 44 cases of a "viral pneumonia of unknown origin" amid concerns that the flu-like virus is linked to the highly contagious SARS virus that caused hundreds of deaths in Asia and elsewhere 17 years ago.
Singapore's Ministry of Health said temperature screening will be implemented at Changi Airport for all travelers arriving from the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Most of the cases have been traced to the South China Seafood City food market in the suburbs of sprawling Wuhan, where offerings are reported to include wild animals that carry viruses unsafe to humans. The condition of two other patients had improved to the point where they would be discharged soon, it said.
Tony Ko Pat-sing, chief executive of the Hospital Authority, said three people were admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital, Tuen Mun Hospital and Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital as suspected cases, but their fevers had already gone, and two were sent home. Initial lab tests that showed "no apparent human-to-human transmission" and no medical staff were infected, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission.
SARS killed 349 people in mainland China and another 299 in Hong Kong that year. However, a number of those infected worked at a seafood market in the city, leading authorities to clean the area.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-young acknowledged similarities between the Wuhan virus, SARS and the deadly 1997 outbreak of bird flu but said there was no need for panic.
Several people were arrested for circulating fake news online about the viral spread of pneumonia, provincial authorities said, adding that rumors on social media alleging that there had been an outbreak of SARS are untrue, and no person-to-person transmission has been found so far. The city has hasn't received any Wuhan-related severe pneumonia cases, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan told reporters Thursday. Similar measures are in place in South Korea, said Park Hye-kyung, a senior official at Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which has launched an emergency center to deal with the issue. "World Health Organization is closely monitoring this event and will share more details as we have them".
The disease, which emerged in southern China late in 2002, spread rapidly to other cities and countries in 2003.
Since 2004, there have not been any known cases of SARS reported anywhere in the world, the NHS says.