Yesterday (January 30), the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China a “public health emergency of international concern” due to the risk the virus poses to countries beyond its origin.
As of Thursday this week, cases of the coronavirus surged to 9,692 and the death toll is over 200 and rising daily. Moreover, cases of human-to-human contact reported in countries outside of China including Japan, Germany, Vietnam, and the United States, indicate that both the size and reach of the outbreak have increased.
This week, the WHO reconvened its emergency committee. Chinese authorities have locked down cities at the centre of the epidemic and the WHO has praised their response to the outbreak. After a visit to China, director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that China’s actions “actually helped prevent the spread of coronavirus to other countries.”
Fewer than 100 cases outside of China have been reported and 99 per cent of cases are still in China. Nonetheless, cases of human-to-human contact and the wider reach could make the virus much more difficult to stop.
The virus could still affect more than 39,000 of the 30 million people living in the region of Wuhan, according to one estimate. Another estimate suggests that up to 190,000 people could become infected. Efforts to contain the virus might reduce this number, but it’s too early to tell whether quarantine and facemasks will be effective enough.
Experts are contemplating what to do next. They warn measures like close borders and restrict trade to China might not do much to halt the spread but instead discourage countries from sharing information about outbreaks in the future to avoid the economic backlash. Indeed, the WHO has urged countries not to restrict travel or trade to China. Some countries have already shut down borders and limited visas.
Another study shows that Bangkok, Thailand is currently the city most at risk from a global spread of the virus based on the number of air travellers predicted to arrive there from the worst affected cities in mainland China, followed by Hong Kong.
Prof Andrew Tatem at the University of Southampton, who was involved in the WorldPop risk analysis said: “It’s vital that we understand patterns of population movement, both within China and globally, in order to assess how this new virus might spread – domestically and internationally. By mapping these trends and identifying high-risk areas, we can help inform public health interventions, such as screenings and healthcare preparedness.”
The new type of coronavirus, which has not been officially named but provisionally called 2019-nCoV, causes severe pneumonia-like respiratory illness as well as milder cases of cough and fever. The virus has also be documented in people showing no symptoms.
If the virus is not effectively contained, there is a chance it could become endemic, which many other endemics, like influenza, could lead to several deaths each year. There is also the possibility the pathogen could mutate, allowing it to spread more easily and affect younger populations. So far, the youngest victim of the 2019-nCoV is a 36-year-old Wuhan man with no known pre-existing health conditions.