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Taxi driver diagnosed with coronavirus after driving Chinese tourists

A case in Thailand described in New England Journal of Medicine raises new questions about person-to-person transmission, experts say.

Chinese people wear protective face masks due to the threat of the deadly coronavirus, named Covid-19, in Beijing on Thursday, February 13, 2020. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Chinese people wear protective face masks due to the threat of the deadly coronavirus, named Covid-19, in Beijing on Thursday, February 13, 2020. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 14 (UPI) -- The tale of a Thai taxi driver who contracted coronavirus hasn't changed the way health officials think about its transmission -- yet.

However, a case report published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine has caused some concern. The report describes how a Bangkok cabbie may have caught the novel virus, called COVID-19, from Chinese tourists who had been his passengers.

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The tourists, who were coughing throughout the ride, were wearing face masks, according to the authors of the report, infectious disease specialists at the Bamrasnaradura Institute in Nonthaburi, Thailand, and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Moreover, the driver himself said that he had no history of travel to China.

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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials did not address the Thailand case report specifically during a press briefing Friday. Nancy Messonnier, director of the agency's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said, however, that "respiratory droplets" passed when an infected person coughs or sneezes remain "the main driver of spread" for COVID-19, the virus currently ravaging Hubei province in China.

"Close contacts" -- those within six feet or less of an infected person -- are at increased risk for person-to-person transmission, she added.

Whether an infected person must be displaying symptoms of the virus to pass it to someone else is still unclear.

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In addition, Messonnier also noted that "some spread may happen" as a result of touching contaminated surfaces -- like a car door handle, for example. To date, though, evidence suggests that COVID-19 doesn't survive for long on surfaces, making risk of contracting the virus this way minimal.

According to the case report on the taxi driver, the 51-year-old man first started experiencing symptoms on January 20. Initially, he went to the doctor and was tested for the flu, and was negative.

After he was unable to work for three days due to illness, he decided to visit a local hospital. There, he was classified as under investigation for COVID-19, isolated and referred to Bamrasnaradura, the Thai agency responsible for the management of emerging infectious diseases.

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CT scans performed by physicians at Bamrasnaradura confirmed lower-respiratory infection, and subsequent samples from the taxi driver's nose and throat tested positive for COVID-19.

He was declared virus-free on February 5 and discharged from the hospital, and his wife and son remained asymptomatic and tested negative for COVID-19, according to the report.

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