FRIDAY, Jan. 17, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Travelers from China will now have to undergo enhanced screening at three major U.S. airports for symptoms of a new coronavirus that has caused an outbreak of pneumonia in China, federal health officials said Friday.
The three airports -- San Francisco (SFO), New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX) -- receive the most travelers from central China, officials explained.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is deploying about 100 health workers to supplement existing staff at CDC quarantine stations located at those airports, the agency said.
The new coronavirus is genetically similar to MERS and SARS, two other coronaviruses that caused global outbreaks, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Messonnier provided a somewhat mixed message regarding the danger posed by the new virus at a CDC news briefing Friday.
She said that, as things stand, "we believe the current risk from this virus to the general public is low."
She noted that "for families sitting around the dinner table tonight, this is not something they should be concerned about."
But she added that it's very likely that the United States will see at least one case of the virus reach its shores.
"As we start testing more, and as lots of countries stand up diagnostic testing, I expect we're going to see more cases and I think it's highly plausible there will be at least a case in the United States," Messonnier said. "That's why we are moving forward so quickly with this screening."
China has reported 45 cases to date, including four reported just a couple of hours before the Friday news briefing, Messonnier said. There have been two deaths among older patients, including one with a prior history of illness.
Just this week, there also were three cases reported outside of China, two in Thailand and one in Japan, Messonnier said. All were in travelers from Wuhan.
Coronaviruses typically infect animals but can evolve and leap to people, and then spread person-to-person.
"Most of the patients in the outbreak have reportedly had some link to a large seafood and live-animal market, which does suggest animal-to-human spread," Messonnier said. "The market was closed earlier this month for disinfection and cleaning."
"It doesn't take a virus much in general to go from being worrisome to being extremely worrisome, because they tend to morph and mutate a lot," Messonnier said. "That's why with this class of viruses we are especially worried and we are taking a cautious proactive approach."
Dr. Daniel Lucey is a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. In a statement, he noted that "unlike the SARS and MERS coronavirus pneumonia epidemics, this outbreak of the third novel coronavirus pneumonia ('CP-3') was discovered very quickly."
"Now the animal source, incubation person, and degree of person-to-person spread must be identified," Lucey said. "Is the virus out of the market and spreading in Wuhan?"
He believes work must begin soon to help research and "to implement clinical treatment studies, something we failed to do for SARS."
New York and San Francisco are the only airports that receive direct flights from Wuhan, a major transportation hub about 700 miles south of Beijing with a population of more than 11 million, said Dr. Martin Cetron, director of CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.
The first flight to be fully screened will arrive at JFK in New York around 10 p.m. Friday night, Cetron said.
Los Angeles was included in the enhanced screening initiative because it receives a huge number of passengers arriving from Wuhan via indirect flights, Cetron explained.
Chinese health officials have shared the virus' genetic profile with other nations across the globe, Messonnier said. The CDC can identify the pathogen using this profile, and is developing a diagnostic test to be handed out to U.S. health departments.
Most passengers from Wuhan will be handed cards detailing symptoms of the virus, and what to do if they fall ill, Cetron said. Those who have suspicious symptoms will be held for further examination and likely will not make an immediate connecting flight.