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Concern Grows Over Spread of Mysterious Virus

New cases of China-linked illness were reportedly identified over the weekend; could impact China's economy if spread continues.
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Concerns grew over the weekend of a mysterious virus that apparently has caused fatal cases of pneumonia and looks to have originated out of the centrally located Chinese city Wuhan.

New cases of the virus – dubbed the 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV – have been confirmed over the weekend, after it also turned up in Japan and Thailand, showing its ability to spread quickly beyond international borders.

As of Sunday, 17 more patients of the virus were reportedly identified in China, with the total recorded cases in Wuhan reportedly as low as 62 to as many as around 200 people.

If the virus continues to spread it could to become a drag on the economy of China, suggested Julian Evans-Pritchard, the Singapore-based senior China economist at Capital Economics in an email to TheStreet on Sunday night.

"The lesson from SARS is that the negative impact on demand from such viruses can potentially be very large. China’s official GDP figures didn’t show much of slowdown during SARS," Evans-Pritchard said, "but the data was almost certainly massaged. Our own measure of growth in China, based on low-level data, showed a sharp slowdown. And Hong Kong suffered from a recession at the time. Passenger traffic was particularly hard hit in both economies. The 'good' news is that these viruses tend to have a negligible impact on the supply-side of the economy which means that once the viruses are brought under control, economic output usually bounces back fairly quickly."

Chart courtesy of Capital Economics (Asia) Pte. Ltd.

The virus could have infected vastly more people than officially confirmed, according to London researchers, who last week calculated the possible scale of the spread.

A total of 1,723 cases of the virus in Wuhan were likely showing symptoms by Jan. 12, according to Imperial College London’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis researchers.

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The London team notes that Wuhan’s international airport alone has a “catchment” population of 19 million people, and many are now on heightened alert as China begins its Lunar New Year’s celebrations, which are expected to spur a dramatic uptick in travel.

Several nations – such as the United States and Japan – have begun to increase screening efforts for potentially sick travelers in some of their major airports, but the virus could have an incubation period of around six days, and most cases aren’t actually detected for about 10 days until after infection, according to the London researchers.

The U.S. is a major destination for Chinese travelers, with some 3 million visits made by Chinese nationals to the U.S. in 2018, according to the U.S. Travel Association. In addition, China is the No. 1 country of origin for international higher education students in the U.S. – with about 370,000 coming from the Asian nation in 2019 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the International Educational Exchange. 

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to closely monitor an outbreak” of the virus in Wuhan, according to the health agency.

The first cases are believed to have occurred in December and are linked to a large seafood and animal market, according to the CDC. The 2019-nCoV virus has been likened to the deadly Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus.

A "possible zoonotic origin to the outbreak” is possible, according to the CDC, noting that it cannot rule out “limited person-to-person spread.”

“It is possible that more cases will be identified in the coming days," wrote the CDC on Friday. "This is an ongoing investigation and given previous experience with MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, it is possible that person-person spread may occur. There is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity, and other features associated with 2019-nCoV as the investigations in China, Thailand, and Japan continue.”

This story has been updated with quotes about the possible impact on China's economy.