AS Pakistan has confirmed the first two cases of the novel coronavirus, with at least 15 suspected cases still under investigation, the authorities on Wednesday appealed to the people not to get panicked while the Sindh and Balochistan governments as a precautionary measure announced closure of all public and private educational institutions for two days and till March 15, respectively.

Both the affected persons, one in Karachi and the other confirmed in the federal areas, had travelled to Iran during the past two weeks, said Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza while addressing a late-night presser in Quetta.

“I can confirm the first two cases of coronavirus in Pakistan. Both cases are being taken care of according to clinical standard protocols and both of them are stable,” he earlier tweeted, while advising people not to “panic, [as] things are under control”.

Dr Mirza appealed to the public that if anyone had recently travelled to Iran or China, they should contact the health authorities via helpline on 1166. He urged the public to go to hospitals if they start experiencing any symptom of the coronavirus.

Govt says no need to panic; 15 suspected cases under investigation; both patients recently returned from Iran; educational institutions in Balochistan, Sindh closed

In response to a question, he said 15 suspected cases of the virus were currently under investigation, while 100 cases had already tested negative. He said instead of creating panic or worrying needlessly, people should “take precautions and show responsibility”.

He said due to measures taken by the government to prevent the spread of the virus, Pakistan was the last country in the region where COVID-19 had been reported. “We are on the right track. With Allah’s blessings, this [virus] will not take the form of an outbreak in Pakistan,” the PM’s aide said, adding that measures were in place to prevent an outbreak.

Meanwhile, the Balochistan education minister announced closure of educational institutions across the province till March 15 apparently in view of the possible spread of the virus due to its long border with Iran.

The official statement came moments after the Sindh health department announced that a young man had tested positive for coronavirus in Karachi. The 22-year-old patient had travelled to Iran where he acquired COVID-19, Media Coordinator to the Health and Population Welfare Minister Meeran Yousuf said in a statement, days after Pakistan had closed its land border with Iran, where 19 people have reportedly died from the virus so far.

The statement said the patient flew back to Karachi from Iran, adding that he and his family had been quarantined at a private hospital. The health department was in the process of examining all the passengers who he had travelled with, it said.

According to sources, he went to Iran with a group of 28 people where he developed complaints of fever, cough and body aches. He returned to the city by air on Feb 20. He reported at a private hospital and was diagnosed with the virus on Feb 26.

Alarming situation

“It’s a very alarming situation. Not only his case couldn’t be detected in Iran or in Pakistan when he reported at the airport, he roamed around freely in the city for almost a week during which he must have interacted with a lot of people,” said Dr Qaiser Sajjad of the Pakistan Medical Association, adding that all those people who had travelled with him might also be at risk of contracting the disease.

This whole episode, he said, put a question mark over the government claims that scanners had been installed at airports to detect cases of highly infectious coronavirus.

A source in the Ministry of National Health Services also confirmed the two cases to Dawn. The source said the other patient was admitted at Islamabad’s PIMS facility; the health secretary did not verify the claim. “A person has been confirmed with virus in Karachi and another has been kept in isolation ward of PIMS,” the source said. Health Secretary Dr Allah Baksh Malik, however, was reluctant to confirm that a patient had been admitted at PIMS.

Delay in confirmation

The Sindh health department confirmed the case after the provincial government’s spokesperson Senator Murtaza Wahab shared details of a patient being diagnosed in Karachi while speaking to a private channel on Wednesday.

Interestingly, during the same show, Sindh Health Department’s Director General Mubeen Ahmed Memon’s denied confirmation of a case. He said being the authority responsible for dealing with the matter with help from 20 teams he would not confirm a case until the patient was only a suspect.

However, Mr Wahab maintained that he had spoken to the health secretary and the patient had tested positive for coronavirus.

As the patient had travelled from Tehran, Mr Wahab urged the federal government to screen all passengers coming from Iran at airports and suggested stopping flights from the neighbouring country. All safety measures had been taken and the provincial government would take emergency steps after this case. “Most arrangements are being made by the Centre, but the Sindh government will play its part as well,” he said.

Suspect cases emerge

In Fateh Jang, a 45-year-old woman was admitted to a tehsil headquarters hospital on Wednesday as a suspect patient of coronavirus.

Dr Asad Ismail, district health officer of the preventive services, told Dawn that the woman had returned on Feb 16 after a month-long pilgrimage visit to Iran. He said that as part of emergency preventative measures, all visitors from China, Iran and other neighboring countries were being monitored for 14 days after their arrival in Pakistan. He said the lady on Wednesday complained of flu and sore throat, following which she was moved to the isolation ward and quarantined at THQ hospital for medical observation. He said her samples were sent to the National Institute of Health in Islamabad for testing and analysis.

In Jhelum district, a woman with flu symptoms was admitted to the district headquarters hospital. She had recently returned from Iran but had not been diagnosed with the virus till the filing of this report.

Late on Wednesday night, all the airports in the country were placed on high alert as extra staff was posted for screening of passengers.

In a tweet, Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar said: “In the wake of corona virus, all the airports have been placed on high alert and all the airport managers have been directed again to ensure 100 per cent screening of passengers.”

A manager at Islamabad International Airport told Dawn that extra manpower had been made available to ensure screening of passengers.

Mohammad Asghar in Rawalpindi and Amjad Iqbal in Taxila also contributed to report

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2020