Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The world’s only licensed doctor in Coronavirus, Dr. Andrew Yong, is pictured in Hong Kong in 2014
The British government says it is offering a booster shot for adults living in regions affected by the Sars-like novel coronavirus (NCoV).
This is ahead of recommendations from the World Health Organization for wider use of this “avian” virus.
The NHS says it will allow them to assess how effective the jab is at preventing infection in travellers.
This is possible because the NHS in England has two licences for anti-NCoV drugs, one of which is licensed to offer booster shots to healthy adults in areas affected by disease.
‘Clean-up’ in South-East Asia
The NCoV outbreak, which originated in Saudi Arabia and spread to neighbouring countries, saw three cases reported in the UK last year. One patient died.
The disease began life in bats before migrating to other animals such as birds. It has been found in ducks, horses, and even a pig, in the Middle East and Asia.
An estimated 16,000 people have been infected worldwide. Seven have died.
The disease is described as a combination of flu and flu-like illness. Symptoms often start as severe acute respiratory distress and soon become emphysema-like, with sporadic fatality rates of around 30%.
But it is not known if NCoV can transmit from person to person.
The highly contagious coronavirus – which causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) – killed 774 people and infected nearly 8000 after it first appeared in Asia in 2002.
It prompted a global “clean-up” of airports, ports and borders, an outbreak of strict hand-washing and surveillance, and a mass scare that led to the closure of major hotels, new buildings and business centres in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Macau.
Global Health Organization (WHO) official Alejandro Salomon told The Guardian: “This is a topic of international concern because new cases in humans and the possible spread of this new virus does create concerns about further outbreaks, but it’s a concern that may be more likely to cause concern in the future.”
The government will also allow paramedics to give the jab, to “enable hospitals and agencies to respond quickly” if the NCoV virus reemerges in British travellers.
Some experts have suggested it was the NHS’s initial decision to put a moratorium on NCoV testing and vaccinations that was “significant”.
Professor Paul Goodman, professor of respiratory medicine at Southampton University and an expert on Sars, told the BBC: “The decision not to screen all passengers when travelling to and from affected regions was a miscalculation.”
He added: “Anyone who has direct exposure to an infected patient should have to be tested to see if they have the virus.”
But the government disagrees with the WHO. It argues that the international system for checking imported passengers is sufficient and therefore it is not necessary to use this system when testing UK passengers heading overseas.
The supplementary licences for NCoV booster shots were issued by the Food Standards Agency last year.
One of the two NHS licences allows it to test positive-positive volunteers for NCoV infection in pandemic plans, including plans for pandemic preparedness.
Neither the FDA nor the Department of Health would comment on when UK passengers would be tested.
Additional reporting by BBC’s Natasha Clarke