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CDC to screen travelers for Chinese virus; 'highly possible' US case to emerge

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will screen travelers at three U.S. airports entering the country from Wuhan, China, to try to keep a lid on a novel coronavirus that has infected 45 people, killing two.

While CDC officials cautioned that the risk of the 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, spreading in the U.S. is "low," Nancy Messonnier, director of the agency's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on Jan. 17 that it was "highly possible there will be a case" of the disease that eventually emerges in the U.S.

The CDC screenings will start at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at 10 p.m. ET on Jan. 17.

The next flights from Wuhan are expected to arrive Jan. 18 at San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport, where travelers will also be screened.

Martin Cetron, director of the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said they expect to initially screen up to 5,000 people at those three airports over the next few weeks.

As many as 65,000 people travel to the U.S. from Wuhan every year, he told reporters during a Jan. 17 briefing. January is the peak month for that travel because of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration. August is also a popular month for visitors from Wuhan coming to the U.S., Cetron said.

Illnesses from coronaviruses can range from cold-like symptoms to deadly diseases, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, or the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.

The coronavirus identified in Wuhan is a novel virus that has never been seen before, which is why American officials are concerned, Messonnier said.

Most, but not all, of the patients in the Wuhan outbreak have had some link to a large seafood and animal market there, suggesting animal-to-person spread, Messonnier said. Since not all of the patients had contact to that market, it suggests there may have been some limited person-to-person spread, she added. Two of the people traveled from Wuhan to Thailand and another to Japan.

Both deaths were in elderly adults, one with a medical condition, Messonnier said.

However, she emphasized that the virus was not something Americans needed to be concerned about "at the dinner table."

Nonetheless, she said CDC officials are concerned any time there is a new virus or pathogen emerging in a population that has not seen it before, where there is no existing immunity, no treatments or vaccines to prevent it.

Screening

Passengers entering the U.S. from Wuhan will have their temperatures checked and asked about any cold or flu symptoms they may be experiencing, CDC's Cetron told reporters.

Anyone suspected of possibly being infected with 2019-nCoV will undergo a secondary screening at another location, which will involve the use of a diagnostic test, he said.

The test was developed after Chinese health authorities made the full genome of 2019-nCoV available to other international health authorities, Messonnier said.

Messonnier also said that the U.S. was working on an improved diagnostic test to detect the virus more rapidly.

"The earlier we detect the case, the better we can protect the public and understand the virus," Cetron said.

As the CDC learns more about 2019-nCoV, it will adjust its screening and response procedures appropriately, he said.

"This is the stage of investigation where need to respond cautiously," Messonnier said.

But standing up the screening will ensure officials will be able to detect 2019-nCoV early if it emerges in the U.S., she said.

"It doesn't take much for a virus to go from worrisome to extremely worrisome," Messonnier said.