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New Outbreak Shows Signs the Virus May Be Changing
Published on: 2020-05-21
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change 01Chinese doctors are seeing the coronavirus manifest differently among patients in its new cluster of cases in the northeast region compared with the original outbreak in Wuhan, suggesting the pathogen may be changing in unknown ways, complicating efforts to stamp it out.

Patients in the northeast provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang appear to carry the virus for a longer period of time and take longer to test negative, Qiu Haibo, one of China’s top critical care doctors, said Tuesday on state television.

change 03Patients in the northeast also appear to be taking longer than the one to two weeks observed in Wuhan to develop symptoms after infection. This delayed onset is making it harder for authorities to catch cases before they spread, said Qiu, who is now in the northeastern region treating patients.

“The longer period during which infected patients show no symptoms has created clusters of family infections,” said Qiu, who was earlier sent to Wuhan to help in the original outbreak. Over the past two weeks, 46 cases have been reported across three cities — Shulan, Jilin city and Shenyang - in two provinces. The resurgence of infection sparked renewed lockdowns over a region of 100 million people.

Scientists still do not fully understand whether the virus is changing in significant ways. The differences Chinese doctors are seeing could reflect their ability to observe patients more thoroughly and from an earlier stage than in Wuhan. When the outbreak first exploded in the central Chinese city, the local health-care system was so overwhelmed that only the most serious cases were being treated. The northeast cluster is also far smaller than Hubei’s outbreak, which ultimately sickened more than 68,000 people.

chang 05Still, the findings suggest that the remaining uncertainty over how the virus manifests will hinder governments’ efforts to curb its spread and reopen their battered economies. China has one of the most comprehensive virus detection and testing regimes globally and yet is still struggling to contain the new cluster.

Researchers worldwide are trying to ascertain whether the virus is mutating in a significant way to become more contagious as it races through the human population, but early research suggesting this possibility has been criticized for being overblown.

"In theory, some changes in the genetic structure can lead to changes in the virus structure or how the virus behaves,” said Keiji Fukuda, director and clinical professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. “However, many mutations lead to no discernible changes at all.”

It’s likely that the observations in China don’t have a simple correlation with a mutation, he said. “Very clear evidence” is needed before concluding that the virus is mutating, he said.








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