New outbreak in China raises concerns of virus mutation

Chinese doctors have observed that the coronavirus is manifesting differently among patients in the country’s new cluster of cases in the northern provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin. The recent observation has raised concerns that the virus may be changing in unknown ways, which could complicate the world’s efforts in stamping it out.

Qiu Haibo, one of China’s top experts in critical care medicine, told state television on Tuesday about the differences in this new cluster. He said that patients in the mentioned provinces tend to carry the virus for a longer time and take longer before testing negative.

The new cluster’s patients also seem to take longer than one to two weeks to show symptoms of the infection. The delayed onset poses a greater challenge for authorities to stem the spread in the area, according to Qiu. “The longer period during which infected patients show no symptoms has created clusters of family infections,” said the doctor.

Patients from the northeast cluster have also been observed to suffer damage mostly in their lungs. In Wuhan, patients had multi-organ damage across the gut, kidney and heart.

The past two seeks saw 46 cases spread across the cities of Shengyang, Jilin and Shulan, prompting the government to implement a new lockdown over a region with a population of 100 million.

Chinese officials currently attribute the new cluster to contact with infected arrivals from Russia, which has recently seen one of the worst outbreaks in Europe. Qiu said that genetic sequencing showed a match between the northeast cases and Russian-linked ones.

Scientists do not fully understand yet whether or not the virus is changing significantly. Chinese doctors may be seeing these differences because treatment for the northeast cluster happened much earlier than the cases in Wuhan. The first outbreak in Wuhan overwhelmed the city’s health care system, forcing medical staff to treat only the most severe cases. Regardless, the uncertainty would make it more difficult for governments to address the spread of the virus and reopen their economies.

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