Deadly coronavirus outbreak is yet to reach its climax, WHO warns

Sarah Newey
A patient is transferred by an ambulance in Hong Kong - Getty Images AsiaPac

The deadly coronavirus spreading throughout China and across the globe has yet to reach its peak, the World Health Organization has warned. 

Roughly 600 people have so far contracted the virus – which is thought to have come from a wholesale food market in Wuhan – and at least 17 people have died.

But speaking at a press conference Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of health emergencies at the WHO, said that more cases and deaths are likely to emerge in the coming days and weeks. 

“The outbreak is still evolving – we are not in a position to say that it has peaked,” he said, citing detailed case information the UN agency had received on Wednesday night from Chinese authorities. 

On Wednesday British experts from Imperial College, London estimated that some 4,000 people in Wuhan alone are likely to be infected with the novel coronavirus – which was first detected in December. But in a worst case scenario this figure could be closer to 9,700. 

Dr Ryan’s comments came as an expert WHO panel stopped short of declaring the unfolding epidemic an international health emergency. 

The organisation has only used the rare label a handful of times, including during the H1N1 – or swine flu – pandemic of 2009 and the current Ebola outbreak, which authorities are still struggling to control in the Democratic Republic of Congo

“Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency – it may yet become one.

“We are completely committed to ending this outbreak as soon as possible. And I will not hesitate to reconvene the committee at a moment’s notice – anytime. It could be in a day, it could be in a couple, it could be any time,” Dr Tedros added. 

The emergency committee said it was “too early to consider” the outbreak a global health crisis because of the limited number of cases outside China and the country’s strong efforts to contain the coronavirus. 

And Dr Tedros refused to criticise the draconian quarantines which are affecting some 20 million people in China – other experts have said the move will only spread panic and drive cases underground.

“China has taken measures it believes appropriate to contain the spread of coronavirus in Wuhan and other cities. We hope that they will be both effective and short in their duration,” the director general said. 

But the WHO’s decision not to declare an international crisis was by no means unanimous.

On Wednesday night, the agency took the unusual step of postponing a final decision because the emergency panel was split 50/50 over the epidemic. 

The panel’s chair, Dr Didier Houssin, said this was still the case on Thursday and announced that the experts had instead recommended the creation of an international investigatory mission to “find out some of the unknowns”.

It is still unclear where and what animal the coronavirus came from and how transmissible it is between humans.

Commenting on the decision not to call an international crisis Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: 

“The decision does not change the fact that the urgent focus must remain on identifying the gaps in understanding of this virus, and on a continued robust, coordinated global public health response. This is not just China’s problem, this is for all of us.”

Peter Piot, professor of global health and Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added: “We are at a critical phase in this outbreak.

“There are still many missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle to fully understand this new virus which is spreading rapidly across China, and most probably around the world. 

“Over the coming days and weeks we will know much more, but there cannot be any complacency as to the need for global action,” he said. 

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