Air travel could spread Wuhan pneumonia to further international locations

20 January 2020

Portrait of Dr Moritz Kraemer

by Dr Moritz Kraemer
Associate Professor of Computational and Genomic Epidemiology

Moritz's research addresses questions related to the spatial spread of infectious diseases. Specifically he is concerned with the integration of epidemiological, spatial and genomic data and how novel insights can be best used to reduce the burden of...

Pneumonia Adobe Stock 126955808
There is currently an outbreak of a pneumonia of unknown etiology in Wuhan, China.

While there are still several unanswered questions, a team of researchers from Canada and Oxford evaluated the potential for international dissemination of this disease via commercial air travel should the outbreak continue to spread.

On December 30, 2019, a report of a cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology was published on ProMED-mail, possibly related to contact with a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Since then the local and international public health communities have been investigating the cases closely and monitoring contacts of suspected cases.

Every year infectious diseases spread around the world via air travellers. Analysing flight data from across the world has helped anticipate the spread of emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola, Zika, MERS, among many others.


Map of flights from Wuhan courtesy of Donal Bisanzio, RTI International

Using passenger flight data from Wuhan from January 2018-March 2018, we find that the top four destinations of international passengers are to Bangkok (38,457 passengers), Hong Kong (23,608), Tokyo (18,581) and Taipei (15,086).

In Bangkok and Tokyo cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed and many are under investigation in Taipei and Hong Kong. Even though basic epidemiological information about the current outbreak of a novel coronavirus is still unknown, this data provides a useful way of stratifying the risk of international spread of the virus across the world.

Such analyses can be helpful for health professionals, clinicians and public health governments guiding and prioritising surveillance efforts especially in countries where capacity to detect cases is poor. Preparations may include ordering laboratory assays to help identify and confirm virus circulation that are now available from the World Health Organization.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.