A Chinese family on holiday in the UAE are the first people in the Middle East to be given positive coronavirus diagnoses.
The mother, father, nine-year-old girl and grandmother from Wuhan were confirmed to have the virus after visiting a local health clinic, a week into their trip.
They arrived in the Emirates on January 16 and took the grandmother to a doctor with flu-like symptoms on January 23, a top health official said.
Officials are retracing the family's steps to find out with whom they came into contact.
Dr Hussein Al Rand, assistant undersecretary at the Ministry of Health and Prevention, told The National on Wednesday that the four were stable and under close observation.
Dr Al Rand did not reveal where the family were being treated and declined to say at which airport they arrived or where they stayed.
“The four members of the family were diagnosed with coronavirus at a UAE health facility. They are in the hospital, have been quarantined and are being treated,” he said.
He repeated statements from the ministry saying there was no need for the public to panic.
“Hospitals across the country have been issued guidelines to follow," Dr Al Rand said.
"If a patient walks into a hospital, medics will follow the case definition that, in this case, matches the profile of the patient with the symptoms.
“If a patient complains of cough and fever and has recently travelled to China, they will be immediately quarantined.
He said there would be no need to close schools or businesses.
“There is no reason they should declare a holiday," Dr Al Rand said.
On Wednesday, many pharmacies sold out of face masks and on Dubai retailer Noon.com the most popular purchase was a 3M particle mask for Dh150, beating the new iPhone and Apple AirPods. The fifth and sixth most popular products were also face masks.
Chinese tourists in particular were seen around Dubai and Abu Dhabi wearing face masks, although they are common in Asia.
Dr Al Rand said they were not necessary and that simple precautions can prevent any virus from spreading.
“If people want to use masks, it’s up to them," he said. "There are special masks but I will suggest proper hand-washing and hygiene.
“If anyone feels sick, they should stay home and get themselves checked."
Dr Al Rand said people should look to updates from official sources.
The ministry earlier announced that coronavirus had spread to the UAE early on Wednesday.
"All family members are in stable condition and the situation was contained by following the most necessary precautionary measures adopted globally when dealing with infected cases", it told the state news agency Wam.
The ministry said it had taken all necessary precautions in accordance with recommendations from the World Health Organisation, and that "it is not cause for concern".
"The healthcare system is working very efficiently and the ministry is following the situation to ensure the safety and health of everyone in the UAE," it said.
Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre said it would update residents about the latest news on coronavirus cases in the country through messages on WhatsApp. The number is 056 231 2171.
The UAE is home to about 200,000 Chinese citizens, most of them living in Dubai.
Among them is the Cheng family from Wuhan, a city in central China that is bigger than London. It is at the centre of the outbreak and remains in lockdown.
Shengping Cheng told The National he worried for relatives at home and called family and friends several times a day to check on their welfare as the death toll continued to rise.
“My sister and her family go out just to buy food provisions. They say the whole city is quiet,” said Mr Shengping, who works for a luxury watch business in Dubai.
“Even the supermarket is open for only a few hours. My sister’s family is at home watching television."
He had read of the four patients in the UAE but was not worried about the virus spreading.
"Naturally, there is a case here," Mr Shengping said. "Tourists from China are everywhere so it had to come here. I tell all my friends not to panic.”
Guidelines from the ministry issued to hospitals across the country say patients should be assessed for the virus if they meet certain criteria.
These include coughing or having difficulty breathing, with or without a fever. They also include a history of travel to China in the past 14 days, or close contact with a person who is unwell and under investigation for the virus.
“Healthcare providers should obtain a detailed travel history for patients being evaluated with fever and acute respiratory illness," the guidelines say.
"Cases with epidemiological exposure, visit to Wuhan or contact with a laboratory-confirmed case should be urgently notified to the relevant health department."
A study in The Lancet into the symptoms of 41 early sufferers found that all patients had pneumonia and most of them had a fever.
About three quarters had a cough and about half of them also had trouble breathing.
But doctors have since come across people who show very mild signs of the illness. One patient, a 10-year-old girl, exhibited no symptoms at all.
Emirates, one of the world’s biggest airline by international passengers, said on Wednesday its flights to China are operating normally.
The country is a major global air travel centre and home to two major airlines.
Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest by international traffic, is the base of Emirates airlines. Etihad Airways operates out of Abu Dhabi International Airport.
The first case of the virus was diagnosed in Wuhan city in Hubei province on December 31.
The city, which remains on lockdown in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, remains the worst affected.
The number of cases in China jumped to 5,974 on Wednesday, up from 4,515 on Tuesday. More than 130 people have now died.
Countries around the world have stepped up their screening of travellers to try to stop the spread of the virus. At least 16 countries around the world have recorded cases so far.
The coronavirus, whichdoes not yet have a name, causes severe acute respiratory infection and can be accompanied with cold and flu-like symptoms.
There is no specific cure or vaccine, although HIV drugs have shown promise, according to reports that claimed anti-retroviral drugs were used to cure a patient in China.
"It is mostly symptomatic treatment and if they get bacterial pneumonia, that is treated," said Dr Charles Stanford, senior director at VPS Healthcare in the UAE.
"If their blood pressure is low they are given fluids and all the usual things.
"Now it’s possible some of the HIV drugs will be helpful. This was tried in the Sars epidemic and was helpful for some patients."
It is not yet clear how severe the Wuhan virus is, because it is so new. It is one of seven known coronaviruses, four of which result in symptoms no more serious than the common cold.
The exceptions include Sars, which has a fatality rate of 14 to 15 per cent; Mers, which kills about 35 per cent of people it infects; and the new virus.
Like Sars and Mers, the Wuhan coronavirus causes pneumonia and can kill.
But there could be many infected who develop such mild symptoms that they do not know they have it.
It is believed to be much less severe than Sars and Mers, with a fatality rate above 3 per cent, based on confirmed cases.
On Tuesday, experts from the University of Hong Kong estimated the number of those infected may be as high as 44,000, when the official figure stood at just 4,515 confirmed cases.
Doctors at the university said about 25,000 people in Wuhan were probably symptomatic already, with the rest still in the incubation period.
They said cases of the new coronavirus could reach pandemic levels, warning that sustained transmission of the virus between humans was already occurring.
Experts have warned China could lose the battle to control the spread of the virus because of its long incubation period.
Incubation is “generally” between three and seven days, but it can be up to two weeks. People are believed to be able to spread the infection during this time.
So doctors say learning how to protect yourself from infection could be key in avoiding the illness.