Coronavirus Spread Outside of China May Be the ‘Tip of the Iceberg:’ WHO Chief

February 10, 2020 Updated: February 10, 2020
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All countries should prepare for the arrival of the new coronavirus, the head of the World Health Organization said on Sunday, as he warned that the current number of cases confirmed in countries outside of China might be “the tip of the iceberg.”

The overwhelming majority of the confirmed cases around the world are in China, where the new virus started in December 2019. But a growing number of cases have been confirmed in other countries, with patients testing positive in over two dozen countries.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), urged countries to take advantage of “the window of opportunity created by the containment strategy to prepare for the virus’s possible arrival.”

There have been multiple concerning instances of human-to-human transmission from people who haven’t traveled to China, Ghebreysus added on Twitter.

“The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

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Passengers wait in their cabins on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship as it remains in quarantine after a number of the 3,700 people on board were diagnosed with the new coronavirus, in Yokohama, Japan, on Feb. 10, 2020. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

China has officially reported nearly 1,000 deaths—the true number is believed to be higher—while the only confirmed death outside of the country took place in the Philippines last week. But transmission between patients outside of China has prompted wider fears that the virus spread could continue for some time.

In France, authorities said Saturday that five British nationals became infected after spending time at a ski chalet with another Briton who had come from a business conference in Singapore, where he got infected. Spanish authorities said a Briton in Mallorca tested positive for the virus; he was believed to have contracted it from an infected person in France. And British authorities said five patients in the country became infected while in France.

Japanese authorities, meanwhile, reported more confirmed coronavirus cases on a cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama that has some 3,700 people on board. Some of the patients didn’t travel to China.

U.S. health officials said on Friday that experts around the world were looking to see if a country outside China experiences “sustained human-to-human transmission.” Two human-to-human cases have been confirmed in America.

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A staff member wearing a protective mask and suit works at a supermarket in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, in China’s central Hubei province, on Feb. 10, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

“What you’re really looking for is when you get a sustained human-to-human community-based transmission, and obviously being on the lookout for where that occurs. And then try to get the collective effort of the world’s public health community to try to prevent a second China right now as we try to help China contain their outbreak they currently have,” Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC director, said at a press conference in Washington.

The virus can be spread through aerosol transmission, Chinese authorities said over the weekend. Researchers in the country said in a paper that the incubation period for the virus can stretch for 24 days, 10 days longer than U.S. health experts had said.

Tedros said that the WHO hasn’t raised the $675 million it wants to support the efforts to contain the coronavirus. He also said the WHO’s team of international experts was finally let into China by authorities there, led by Bruce Aylward, a Canadian doctor who is an expert on emergencies and epidemiology. Four hundred other experts would gather at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva to share research and tools about the virus and efforts against it.

Tedros urged countries to share information in real-time with the WHO and called for people to remain calm.

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