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Government 'Cannot Prevent' New Deadly Virus Reaching Australia

Australians are being warned there's no guarantee a new deadly virus rapidly spreading through Asia won't reach our shores.

More than 200 people in China have been diagnosed with a new strain of coronavirus -- which has now spread to Japan, Thailand and South Korea -- but the Australian Government's chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, believes this is likely to be a "significant underestimation".

"There are a significant number of mild cases, which often go undetected. The modelling suggests there could be many more than those 200 cases when we get a true picture of the epidemiology," Murphy said during a press conference in Canberra today.

Human-to-human transmission of the virus was confirmed earlier today. The vast majority of cases have been detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, but it is spreading.

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Brendan Murphy speaking at a press conference today and a Chinese resident wears a face mask to prevent infection. Image: Getty

Murphy said no international travellers have yet been confirmed as having this virus in Australia. However, he added border security cannot guarantee this disease won't reach our shores.

It is important to remember that you cannot absolutely prevent entry to a country with a disease like this.

"This a rapidly evolving situation," Murphy said.

Symptoms include a high fever, and other respiratory conditions such as a cough, breathlessness and sore throat.

While public concern has been heightened during the last few days, Murphy assured the Australian public there is no current need for alarm.

"The risk remains relatively low, although we do need to keep a precautionary and active surveillance of the situation."

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China has reported 200 cases of a new coronavirus strain, with President Xi Jinping saying it must be dealt with quickly as human-to-human transmission is confirmed.

Coronaviruses are present in both humans and animals, with a number of common colds caused by particular strains.

Murphy explained some coronaviruses from animal species' can mutate and cross over to humans causing infection, similar to the likes of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

"We are always concerned about the emergence of a new cornavirus infecting humans, which is why we and the international communities are taking this virus seriously," he added.

Allen Cheng, a professor of infectious diseases epidemiology and director of the infection prevention, told 10 daily the looming Chinese New Year is going to trigger unease.

Red lanterns hang against the sky in Sydney's China Town. Image: Getty

"Millions of people go home to China for Chinese New Year and then return to Australia or wherever they normally live, which causes a lot of anxiety about what will happen next," he said.

"At this stage we don’t know how severe it is, but it can be like the flu where some people aren't that sick but others get very sick."

There have been a few cases where care workers being diagnosed with the virus in China which indicated that it can be transmitted from human to human.

"People who have travelled to China or are at risk must volunteer that information and tell doctors they've been there so they can then take appropriate tests," Cheng said.

Cheng said the new strain of virus isn't causing any standout symptoms and thermal scanner technology -- currently being used by US border force --isn't always accurate.

He said it can sometimes fail to detect a fever and is limited in its ability to distinguish which type of virus someone has.

"People with coronavirus don't always have a fever so thermal scanners don't really work," Cheng said.

"The other problem with them is that there could be a couple of hundred misdiagnosed cases of coronavirus because it's winter in the northern hemisphere so there will be millions and millions of cases of the flu (which can also cause a fever)."

In a statement released on Sunday, the Australian Department of Health said the nation's border security forces have "well established" mechanisms to respond to ill travelers at entry points across the nation.

There are currently three direct flights a week from Wuhan to Sydney, which raises concern.

Currently under Australian legislation airlines must report passengers onboard showing signs of an infectious disease, including fever, sweats or chills.

Aircrafts which report ill passengers are met on arrival by biosecurity officers who will make necessary precautions, such as isolation and referral to hospital where required.

Three flights per week arrive in Sydney directly from Wuhan. Image: Getty

"We are putting into place some additional border measures. In particular these measures relate to the three direct flights a week from Wuhan to Sydney," Murphy said.

"We will also be putting information in place at other points of entry warning people about this disease and if they develop symptoms to seek medical attention."

The World Health Organisation does not currently recommend any travel advisory for China, or additional measures at airports beyond our established mechanisms.

The global organisation is closely monitoring the situation and is believed to be in regular contact with Chinese authorities to provide support required.