The first British national has tested positive for coronavirus after travelling back to the UK from Singapore, government sources have said.
England’s chief medical officer earlier confirmed that there had been a third case in the UK but declined to confirm the patient’s nationality.
Government sources later indicated that the individual was British, middle-aged and contracted the coronavirus in Singapore.
It came after an unnamed Chinese student from York University and his mother were diagnosed with the disease earlier this week. The pair are being treated in Newcastle.
The latest case has heightened doctors’ concerns about the possibility of more coronavirus cases arriving from countries in Asia other than China, potentially making containment of the virus more difficult to manage.
No further details have been given of the third person to be confirmed with pneumonia as a result of the coronavirus.The patient, who it is understood was diagnosed in Brighton, has been transferred to a London hospital with a specialist infectious diseases unit
“A further patient has tested positive for coronavirus bringing the total number of cases in the UK to three. The individual did not acquire this in the UK,” said Prof Chris Whitty, England’s CMO, in a statement.
“The patient is being transferred to a specialist NHS centre, and we are using robust infection control measures to prevent any possible further spread of the virus. The NHS is well prepared to manage these cases and we are working quickly to identify any contacts the patient has had.”
Whitty pointed up the significance of the fact that the patient was infected in one of the 24 countries outside of China that have just 225 confirmed cases between them: “The person who caught this did not catch it in China, they caught it elsewhere in Asia. That’s an important point from an epidemiological point of view because, whilst it’s absolutely the case that by far the biggest risk remains in China … nevertheless there is now evidence of some limited transmission in a number of Asian countries.”
After a meeting of the scientific and advisory committee on Thursday morning, NHS doctors are being advised to widen the pool of countries that would trigger concern if individuals returning to the UK displayed symptoms.
Whitty said: “We’ve decided … based on transmission potential and travel patterns … to extend geographically the countries where if a doctor in the NHS sees a patient who has travelled from Asia, now they will start thinking about testing from a wider geographical area than would have been the case before. So we are shifting geography for NHS doctors to test.”
The advice for people returning to China to self-isolate and call 111 if they feel unwell is now being extended to all people returning to the UK from other Asian countries where cases have been reported. That will include the handful of countries with the most cases outside mainland China: Japan with 33, Thailand with 25, Singapore with 24, South Korea with 18 and Vietnam and Malaysia with 10 each. Australia has 13.
Whitty said: “We knew this ratchet up might well happen and this is the moment where we feel it’s prudent, getting ahead of the epidemiology, to make this shift.
“What we have got is a situation where very high risk remains in Wuhan and Hubei, a high risk in the rest of China, but much lower than in Wuhan and Hubei and then a much smaller risk in a number of countries, and unsurprisingly countries where the greatest risk is in terms of new cases are the ones which have the greatest international traffic with China, and that is exactly as you would expect.”
The news of travel-related transmission from another country into the UK is a game-changer for the response, said Dr Bharat Pankhania from the University of Exeter. “It’s a clear indication that this virus is now circulating in many countries,” he said. “That tells us that our control containment policies will need to be reviewed, as infected people may be entering the UK from countries other than China. The fact that we do not have any additional cases that were contacts of the initial two in the UK signals that our control policies appear to be working, although it’s still early days so we must continue our vigilance.”
The patient is understood to have been admitted to Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital in London. .
The first two cases were people from the same family of Chinese nationals who had been staying at a hotel in York. One was a student at York University and the other was his mother who was visiting from China. They were diagnosed last Friday. The university said the student had not been on campus or in student accommodation before his infection.
In the UK, there had been 466 negative tests for coronavirus as of Wednesday. Before direct flights were halted by the Chinese government, 1,466 passengers and 95 staff arrived in the UK from Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak in China, between 10 and 24 January. All 1,304 who remained in the UK are now out of the incubation period for the virus.
“It is not surprising to see a third case. It has been expected that the UK would see more than just the two previous cases. Therefore, public health and NHS authorities will be well prepared to deal with and follow up on this news,” said Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton.
“Clearly the outbreak is at a very important point, both globally and here in the UK. It looks at this stage like the infection is imported, rather than acquired through human-to-human transmission within the UK. So far, outside of China, there has been very limited human transmission of the coronavirus, which is good news in terms of potentially being able to contain the international spread.”