Coronavirus cases outside China 'could be spark' for bigger fire, says WHO

Coronavirus cases outside China 'could be spark' for bigger fire, says WHO

A man puts a protective mask in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Wuhan
A man puts a protective mask in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on Jan 27, 2020, amid a deadly virus outbreak which began in the city. (Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal)

BEIJING: The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday (Feb 10) the spread of coronavirus cases that had no history of travel to China could be "the spark that becomes a bigger fire" as people across China trickled back to work after an extended Chinese New Year holiday.

The death toll from the epidemic rose to 908, all but two in mainland China, on Sunday as 97 more fatalities were recorded - the largest number in a single day since the virus was detected in the city of Wuhan in December.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship with 3,700 passengers and crew onboard remained quarantined in the Japanese port of Yokohama, with 65 more cases detected, taking the number of confirmed case from the Carnival Corp-owned vessel to 135.

European stocks fell on concerns about the impact of the closure of factories in China, the world's second-largest economy, on supply chains for companies from Taiwan's iPhone-maker Foxconn to carmakers Kia Motors and Nissan

Across mainland China, 3,062 new infections were confirmed on Sunday, bringing the total number to 40,171, according to the National Health Commission (NHC). An advance team of international WHO experts has arrived in China to investigate.

Wu Fan, vice-dean of Shanghai Fudan University Medical school, said there was hope the spread might soon reach a turning point.

"The situation is stabilising," she told a briefing when asked about the spread in Shanghai, which has had nearly 300 cases and one death.

But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there had been "concerning instances" of transmission from people who had not been to China.

"It could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire," he told reporters. "But for now it is only a spark. Our objective remains containment."

"There've been some concerning instances of onward #2019nCoV spread from people with no travel history to (China)," Ghebreyesus tweeted on Sunday, using the virus's provisional scientific name.

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"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."

While the virus' spread outside China appeared to be slow, Ghebreyesus warned it could accelerate.

"Containment remains our objective, but all countries must use the window of opportunity created by the containment strategy to prepare for the virus' possible arrival," he said.

Outside mainland China, there have been more than 350 infections reported in nearly 30 places. There have been two deaths, one in the Philippines and the other in Hong Kong.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China while major airlines have suspended flights, and Air China cancelled some of its flights to the United States.

The WHO-led mission to China is being headed up by Bruce Aylward, a veteran of previous health emergencies, Ghebreyesus said. Aylward oversaw the WHO's 2014-2016 response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

WHO said in recent days there had been "some stabilising" in the numbers of new cases of the coronavirus in China. But the UN agency cautioned it was too early to say if the virus had peaked.

The SARS-like virus is believed to have emerged late last year in the central city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province where millions of people are under lockdown in a bid to stop it spreading.

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Source: Agencies/ad/jt

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