Doctors in Wuhan, China, identified the youngest known carrier of coronavirus on Wednesday: a 30-day-old infant whose mother tested positive for the virus while pregnant.
China is confronting a rapidly accelerating outbreak of a previously unknown coronavirus that it acknowledged publicly on January 20, a month after locals in Wuhan said they began hearing of an illness spreading rapidly. Over 20,000 people have been diagnosed as carrying the new coronavirus and nearly 500 people have died, the majority of them in China. The virus has begun spreading from human to human in several Asian countries, however, including Thailand and Singapore.
The new coronavirus is believed to be a relative of the common cold and the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, producing similar symptoms like fever, cough, and body aches. Those who have died have developed advanced pneumonia and are believed to be largely elderly people and those already suffering from prior illness. As China did not alert its health workers of the highly contagious nature of the virus, hospitals did not adequately isolate patients with flu-like symptoms before January 20, likely leading to widespread infection in at-risk populations already hospitalized.
The South China Morning Post cited the Communist Party’s CCTV broadcaster Wednesday in confirming that a 30-hour infant tested positive for the virus in Wuhan, where it originated. The baby’s mother also tested positive for the virus before giving birth, suggesting that the child could have been infected in the womb. Doctors are not yet certain, given the 30 hours in between birth and confirmation of infection, if the child was already carrying coronavirus in the womb or became infected after contact with the mother following birth.
The infant suggests yet another avenue for the virus to spread. Currently, the virus is believed to spread most commonly through moisture particles in the area, meaning the breath of a carrier could infect someone. This makes the virus significantly more contagious than Ebola, for example, that can only be transmitted through extensive exposure to a carrier’s blood. If the virus can reach a baby in the womb, it may also have the potential to complicate pregnancies like the Zika virus, which results in mild symptoms when passed to adults but severely deforms an unborn child’s brain.
The Wuhan newborn is among the 3,887 people confirmed as carriers of the new coronavirus on Wednesday, the highest number in any one day since the outbreak began. The total number of confirmed cases worldwide is currently at 24,629 and 492 people have died, all but two within China. The death toll between Tuesday and Wednesday, 65 people, is also the largest number in a single day, calling into question adamant assertions by Chinese state media and government officials last week that the rate of infection had started to decline.
Outside of China, health authorities are concerned with preventing the virus from spreading in the wild, isolating individuals coming into outside countries from China. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand have all documented cases of human-to-human transmission – that is, infections that occurred outside of the epicenter of the outbreak – alarming locals who fear they can become infected by being out in public in their home countries. Japan is also handling an outbreak that occurred on a cruise ship housing 3,700 passengers, quarantining the ship after a passenger tested positive for the virus upon returning from a vacation on the ship.
Unrest in Hong Kong, already at near-peak levels before the viral outbreak due to increasingly belligerent political moves by Beijing, has swept the virus response into its storm. Thousands of health workers in the city are currently on strike in protest against Chief Executive Carrie Lam refusing to shut Hong Kong’s border with China, choosing instead to keep some smaller points of entry open for those who commute to and from China regularly. As of Tuesday, 7,000 health workers were on strike. Health workers fear that they do not have the resources possible to adequately do their jobs if the border remain open, potentially flooding Hong Kong hospitals with patients from China. Tens of thousands of people crossed the border into Hong Kong on Tuesday, according to Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK. One of two deaths outside of China occurred in Hong Kong; the other was a traveler from Wuhan in the Philippines.
“If we don’t stop the virus at its source, even if we have more manpower, resources or more isolation wards, the problem cannot be solved,” Winnie Yu of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority Employees Alliance said on Tuesday.
The strike has yielded minimal results as Lam, inch by inch, has conceded some policy changes. On Wednesday, Lam announced that the government would quarantine any individual crossing the border from China for 14 days as of next Saturday.
While Hong Kong residents demand to be sealed off from China, Taiwan has moved to seal itself off from Hong Kong, citing the open border as a security risk. Similar to Lam’s new proposal, Taiwan will force any individual entering from Hong Kong or Macau into a 14-day quarantine to prevent the virus from spreading. This will also apply to individuals who visited China, Hong Kong, or Macau in the past 14 days but enter Taiwan from a third country.
The Chinese Communist Party has bristled at these limitations in travel, largely blaming the United States for spreading “panic” and “racism” against Chinese people. The United States has banned any foreign national from entering the country if they have visited China in the past 14 days.
The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, called America “extremely selfish and irresponsible” for limiting travel and responding to the threat of Chinese imperialism despite the existence of the outbreak. The column was particularly outraged by a remark by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week, who deemed China a top global threat because of its use of its technological arms like Huawei to implement authoritarian technologies worldwide.
“The rise of China, an oversized country under the strong leadership of the CPC, is an unstoppable historical process,” the People’s Daily declared. “While there will be tests along the way, including this new coronavirus outbreak, the ultimate victory must be China’s. To borrow a phrase, the only thing to fear is fear itself. As for the American politicians with evil intentions, time will see their defeat, and history will record their ugliness.”