INTERVIEW – In China, a mysterious pneumonia is worrying: two patients have died due to a coronavirus close to SARS, and several dozen patients have already been identified. Jean-Claude Manuguerra, head of the biological emergency response unit at the Institut Pasteur, answers our questions.
– Idèr Nabili
Are we at the dawn of an epidemic or is it just an epiphenomenon? On the Asian continent, several dozen people contracted a mysterious coronavirus and had to be hospitalized. Two patients have died so far and five are still in serious condition. Cases all identified in Wuhan, China, where there is a market specializing in the sale of seafood and fish, which could be at the origin of this virus. Two Thais and a Japanese, who had visited this city, were also affected and are hospitalized.
The virus is close to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which claimed the lives of hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003. Should we worry about its appearance? How is it transmitted? Can it reach France? LCI asked these questions to Jean-Claude Manuguerra, head of the emergency biological intervention unit at the Institut Pasteur.
LCI: What do we know about this new virus that appeared in China?
Jean-Claude Manuguerra: It belongs to a large family of coronaviruses that we find in many animal species and in humans. But at the moment we don’t know much about it. Some coranaviruses have digestive symptoms, others respiratory. For the one that interests us, in the cases that have been described, the symptoms are all respiratory.
Forty cases have been identified in China. Can the virus spread between humans?
For the moment, we are thinking by analogy with the closest virus that we know: that of SARS, for which it was the case, with a transmission taking place mainly by air during a cough, by droplets during ” a sneeze, and possibly by hand-dragging, that is to say when someone coughs or sneezes in his hand and then touches something. But it should be noted that with the new virus, there is no infection of the nursing staff. This means that it is not very communicable and contagious at the moment.
How did the virus infect those affected?
This is a good question to which we do not have the answer at all. What we do know is that it is almost obvious that the virus comes from an animal source. But we do not yet know the species that harbored this virus before, nor the possible intermediate species that could have made contact between humans and animals.
Most of the cases have been reported in Wuhan, a city with a seafood and fish market. Can these animal species be the origin?
I do not believe at all that the source is a species of fish. It would surprise me a lot. The virus is far too close to those of mammals. It’s probably another source than fish.
There is nothing to worry about, but let’s not get overwhelmed
Should we worry?
We must always be very vigilant because we never know how things will develop. Today, the situation is neither dramatic nor exceptional. On the other hand, we have examples in the past where viruses, which were not very widespread or contagious, suddenly became so. This is what we saw for SARS in 2003, which ultimately resulted in 800 deaths. There is nothing to worry about, but we must not let ourselves be overwhelmed.
Can the virus arrive in Europe?
Obviously! It is even likely to arrive in Europe. From China to Paris, there is only 12 hours. In addition, in Wuhan, there are many relationships with France and Europe. In its time, SARS was spotted in 30 different countries.
If the virus arrives, would France be ready to take care of it?
Around the world, laboratories are preparing to diagnose this new virus if cases occur. Patient management is already planned by national authorities in many countries, including France.
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