China virus: No screening yet at Helsinki Airport as authorities monitor deadly coronavirus

Several hundred people have been infected in four countries - with three known fatalities. Authorities in Finland are monitoring the situation closely for Asia travelers.

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File picture of woman in China wearing face mask / Credit: iStock

The number of people infected by a deadly new strain of coronavirus in China tripled over the weekend and spread from Wuhan to cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen; while the Chinese government also confirmed on Monday that the virus can be transmitted person-to-person.

A number of airports in Asia are stepping up monitoring of passengers from China, especially with many people traveling for Chinese New Year. However, Finnish authorities say they’re monitoring the situation and have contingency plans in place, but for now they don’t have specific measures to undertake health screening on China passengers.

“When it comes to the situation in China we don’t have plans for entry screening of passengers. It would be a massive operation and the World Health Organisation recommends that full-scale screening is not very effective, it can lead to a lot of false positives” says Jussi Sane, an expert virologist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare THL.

“Right now we are putting together the incident management group to follow this situation and to update our guidelines and plans […] when it comes to flights in general we have just updated our incident management plans at airports, specifically at Helsinki by far the biggest in Finland. It covers many severe infections diseases like Ebola, respiratory infections like MERS and SARS which are severe. That’s all in place” he tells News Now Finland.

File picture of Finnair plane / Credit: Finnair

Safety on board Finnair flights from Asia 

The Finnish national airline carries thousands of passengers from Asia to Helsinki every week, including flights to six Chinese cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Chongqing and Xi’an; as well as Hong Kong.

Finnair says it’s got strict protocols in place in case they detect a sick passenger on board, and all aircraft are equipped with an infection kit and hygiene equipment.

“If a passenger is suspected of being infected with a dangerous disease, the passenger will be seated as far as possible from other passengers and will be asked to wear protective equipment. Also, when possible, one toilet will be provided to his/her use. In addition, the number of crew dealing with the patient is reduced to one, and the crew member will be properly protected” a Finnair spokesperson tells News Now Finland.

Planes are of course fitted with air filtration systems that purify the air on board several times each hour, and the aircraft are cleaned on the ground between flights – with more in-depth cleaning as well on a regular basis.

“Flying is a physical stress and every passenger must be fit to fly. Our starting point is that a passenger’s illness should not cause harm to him/herself during the flight and neither to other passengers and crew on board” says the airline.

File picture of shopping street in Wuhan, October 2018 / Credit: iStock

Taking precautions for Asia travel 

THL’s expert Jussi Sane advises that anyone traveling to China right now should take “normal measures, hand hygiene and so forth” but says there’s no specific advice for this new strain of coronavirus.

Symptoms can initially include fever, with some coughing, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath. Some patients have had fluid on the lungs.

“In Wuhan there is exit screening going on” for airline passengers, in the city where the virus originated “it’s more feasible and cost-effective” Sane says.

So far around 200 people have been reportedly diagnoses with the new coronavirus, and three people have died. Cases have been reported in Japan, Thailand and South Korea as well.

Jussi Sane commends the Chinese authorities for releasing the virus’s genome sequence so that researchers can study it to find out how the coronavirus is being spread, and potentially how to fight against it.

“It’s all about preparedness, and funding preparedness globally. Finland has been very active in the global health security world to put a focus on preparedness” he says.