New Zealand should consider border surveillance as deadly Chinese virus spreads - expert

A professor of public health says it's time New Zealand considered surveillance at our border, as cases of a deadly new virus triple in China.

China has also confirmed for the first time that the new strain of Coronavirus, which is similar to the flu, can spread from person to person.

As a result, China is now scanning passenger temperatures at airports and checking for signs of fever on some flights.

The new measures come as authorities confirm the virus is transmissible between humans.

Otago University Professor of Public Health, Michael Baker, says the news changes everything.

"It would be very responsible to start looking at what elements of our pandemic plan should be rolled out for this event," he told Newshub.

The virus first emerged in the gloomy, narrow confines of a seafood and live animal market in the city of Wuhan.

China has reported 217 cases and four deaths prompting precautions on the streets.

The virus is no longer confined to Wuhan in China - cases have been recorded in Japan, Thailand and South Korea.

"If that pattern continues, it would be only a matter of time before infected travellers would wind up in New Zealand," said Baker.

"So we do need to think about whether border screening and this is risk-based screening is needed."

The Ministry of Health says "there are no direct flights between Wuhan and New Zealand" and the Ministry is "not recommending screening to be used at airports here".

Vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris says even if someone had transited through Wuhan, there's a risk of it spreading.

"As it grows, the risk increases… and it's just a plane ride away," she said.

Visitors from China arrive in New Zealand by the planeload - only second to Australia. More than 400,000 Chinese people arrived last year. 

Professor Baker says we should not be complacent.

He gives the example of our recent measles crisis, which he says came about because we didn't do enough to increase vaccine coverage despite there being evidence of an immunity gap years ago.

"New Zealand did nothing at that point - that's the problem. We are not investing enough in prevention in this country."

Australia is taking action to prevent the new virus reaching its shores - screening passengers coming to Sydney directly from Wuhan.

Compounding the issue is the millions of people travelling around China right now for Chinese New Year.

It means authorities are trying to contain a contagion during the world's largest human migration.