DEADLY coronavirus – which has killed at least 81 people – is likely already in UK, a leading health chief has warned.
Dr Yvonne Doyle, a medical director at Public Health England, suspects that the lethal new virus could have bypassed airport screening.
It comes as public health bosses were accused of wrongly telling carriers arriving from China that they didn’t need testing for the flu-like illness.
But Dr Doyle told Sky News that she believes the UK government and the NHS is “well-prepared” to handle cases here.
She said: “Since we spotted this in the early new year, we have been intensifying our work across government but also with the NHS.
“Our view is that although airports seem important, the most likely place that we may find a case is someone who is in the country already.
The most likely place that we may find a case is someone who is in the country already
Dr Yvonne Doyle
“It is absolutely critical that the public health service and the NHS are ready to both diagnose that and to then designate that to the right facilities.
“Now we’ve set all that up and I want viewers to be reassured that we and the NHS are ready for that.
“That’s the most likely scenario we’re dealing with.”
Last night, it emerged that suspected coronavirus carriers who have arrived from China in recent days were reportedly only tested if they had “the sniffles”.
According to the Telegraph, a potential British “super-spreader” revealed he had not been offered screening – despite visiting the fish market where the virus is understood to have originated almost every day.
David Marland, a mathematics teacher who has lived in Wuhan for the past decade, told the newspaper that he called NHS 111 shortly after returning to the UK last week.
He claimed that a specialist asked if he or his family members “had the sniffles” and when he said that he felt healthy, he was told to call back if he began to feel unwell.
I’m potentially a risk to other people
The 34-year-old said he might be unwittingly carrying the disease and accused health bosses of putting the public in danger.
He said: “I’m potentially a risk to other people.
“I’m still within the two week period so I could be spreading the disease everywhere without having any symptoms.”
What is coronavirus?
Coronavirus is an airborne virus, spread in a similar way to colds and the flu.
The virus attacks the respiratory system, causing lung lesions.
Symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough and fever, shortness of breath, chills and body aches.
It is incredibly contagious and is spread through contact with anything the virus is on as well as infected breath, coughs or sneezes.
Symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough and fever, shortness of breath, chills and body aches.
In most cases, you won’t know whether you have a coronavirus or a different cold-causing virus, such as rhinovirus.
But if a coronavirus infection spreads to the lower respiratory tract (your windpipe and your lungs), it can cause pneumonia, especially in older people, people with heart disease or people with weakened immune systems.
There is no vaccine for coronavirus.
In 2003 an outbreak of a similar virus, SARS, infected more than 8,000 people in 37 countries before it was brought under control, killing 800 of those worldwide.
It raises fears that potential spreaders in the UK may not have been screened for the virus under the assumption that they showed no symptoms.
A senior NHS source told the newspaper that patients who called the 111 service had not been offered tests unless they showed signs of the virus.
They said: “Our specialists followed the official advice from Public Health England to the letter.”
However, a source at PHE has warned that the claims from China that the disease is asymptomatic were not yet proven.
More than 50 people have now been tested for coronavirus in the UK, according to the Department of Health (DoH), although all tests have returned negative.
As of Sunday afternoon, some 52 people across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been tested for the deadly flu-like virus.
The current risk to the public remains low, the department said, adding that the Government is continuing to monitor the situation closely.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said there was a “fair chance” cases would emerge in Britain as the overall number reported around the world climbed to about 2,744 including 80 deaths, which have all occurred in China.
Britons trapped in the Chinese province at the centre of the outbreak have been urged to leave the area if they are able to do so.
The Foreign Office updated its guidance to “advise against all travel to Hubei province”, which has been on lockdown for several days as China seeks to contain the illness.
But the guidance also added: “If you are in this area and able to leave, you should do so. This is due to the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak.”
A pair of British teachers who have been working in Wuhan say they have not left their apartment for five days, that all transport has been stopped and “there is no place to go” and “so we are pretty much stuck”.
Where did coronavirus start? From bats to snakes – the theories on deadly virus’ origins
The killer coronavirus was spread from bats to snakes to humans, experts have claimed.
An outbreak of the virus is understood to have started at an open air fish market in the Chinese city of Wuhan – which has since been put in lockdown after 25 people died and more than 600 people were infected globally.
A new study published in the China Science Bulletin this week claimed that the new coronavirus shared a strain of virus found in bats.
Previous deadly outbreaks of SARS and Ebola were also believed to have originated in the flying mammal.
Experts had thought the new virus wasn’t capable of causing an epidemic as serious as those outbreaks because its genes were different.
But this latest research appeared to prove otherwise – as scientists scrabble to produce a vaccine.
In a statement, the researchers said: “The Wuhan coronavirus’ natural host could be bats … but between bats and humans there may be an unknown intermediate.”
Meanwhile, scientists at Peking University also claim that the deadly virus was passed to humans from bats – but say it was through a mutation in snakes.
The researchers said that the new strain is made up of a combination of one that affects bats and another unknown coronavirus.
They believe that combined genetic material from both bats and this unknown strain picked up a protein that allows viruses bind to certain host cells – including those of humans.
After analysing the genes of the strains the team found that snakes were susceptible to the most similar version of the coronavirus.
It meant that they likely provided a “reservoir” for the viral strain to grow stronger and replicate.
Snakes are sold at the Huanan Seafood Market in central Wuhan and may have jumped to other animals before passing to humans, they claim.
But a senior researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who asked not to be named, said the findings should be treated with caution.
He told the South China Morning Post: “It is based on calculation by a computer model.
“Whether it will match what happens in real life is inconclusive.
“The binding protein is important, but it is just one of the many things under investigation. There may be other proteins involved.”
The expert believes that the new strain was an RNA virus, meaning that its mutation speed was 100 times faster than that of a DNA virus such as smallpox.
Jason Neal and Sophie Hunt told BBC Breakfast there has been no reassurance from the British authorities whom they have “struggled” to contact, possibly because of the time difference and them being closed over the weekend.
They have about five days of food left and are keeping in touch with colleagues online while the scene outside is now like a “ghost town”.
Mr Neal said: “Even if the news is just to sit tight and nothing is going to change – I think it is just the silence that is disconcerting.
“We have not heard anything from outside of Wuhan for a week now.”
He said there is a support group for people who may need help and to get masks and some volunteers are going out to make deliveries.
Ms Hunt said emailing and trying to ring the authorities has brought a “useless automated response back from the embassy saying not to go” to the area.
She feels the Chinese authorities have made the right decision by shutting down the city, adding: “All we keep hearing is that the death toll is accelerating every day. All we can do really is sit tight and wait for more news.
“Although it is hard us being stuck here, we know that it is the safest possible option for us at the moment.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the Government was “looking at all options” to help Britons leave Wuhan following reports that officials have been asked to examine the logistics for an airlift from the city.
One academic told The Guardian his “best guess” was that 100,000 people had been infected with the flu-like virus.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, told the paper: “There are very large numbers of Chinese tourists across Europe right now.
“Unless the Chinese manage to control this, and I’m sceptical about whether that is possible, we will get cases here.”
It comes as spectators celebrated Chinese New Year in central London, which marks the start of the Year of the Rat.
Authorities in China have cancelled a host of events marking New Year as they expand their measures against the virus.
Meanwhile, health officials are continuing to track down around 2,000 people who have recently flown into the UK from Wuhan, the area of China worst affected by the outbreak.
The DoH confirmed it is trying to find “as many passengers as we can” who arrived from the region in the past two weeks to check on their wellbeing.
Unless the Chinese manage to control this, and I’m sceptical about whether that is possible, we will get cases here
Professor Neil Ferguson
It is understood Border Force officers have been recruited to help speed up the search for passengers as testing for the virus continues in the UK.
A public health hub has been set up in Heathrow, staffed by a rotating team of seven clinicians working in shifts to support patients on arrival.
One British man, who had travelled to Wuhan to visit his girlfriend, is stuck in the city after his return flight on February 3 was cancelled, and he described trying to get out of the area as “impossible”.
The 29-year-old, who did not want to be named, told the PA news agency: “There is no news on when the airport will reopen therefore the airline (China Southern) have just cancelled the flight.
“I’ve also had no help from the UK Embassy in Beijing who are conveniently closed for the weekend.”
Prof Whitty said following a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall on Friday that the virus looked “a lot less dangerous” than contracting Ebola, the recent coronavirus, Mers and “probably less dangerous” than Sars virus.
But he added: “What we don’t know is how far it’s going to spread, that really is something we need to plan for all eventualities.”
“We all agree that the risk to the UK public remains low, but there may well be cases in the UK at some stage.”
“We think there’s a fair chance we may get some cases over time.
“Of course this depends on whether this continues for a long time, or whether this turns out to be something which is brought under control relatively quickly.”